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Cancer: New Science on How to Prevent and Treat It—A Report from TEDMED

Cancer: New Science on How to Prevent and Treat It—A Report from TEDMED

CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE HAS LOST THE BATTLE WITH CANCER. But that doesn’t mean the war is over. Let me explain why we may finally be heading in the right direction.

I just returned from TEDMED, an extraordinary gathering of brilliant minds from science, medicine, business, and technology—a veritable intellectual orgy. During the conference, there was a theme that emerged: Synthesis.

Instead of dividing everything into diseases and labels, emerging science is pointing to a different way of thinking about diseases. The thread that ran through the conference was that disease is a systemic problem and we have to treat the system, not the symptom; the cause, not the disease. This completely redefines the whole notion of disease. The landscape of illness is changing.

At TEDMED I spoke about a new way to define disease, to navigate the landscape of illness. It is called functional medicine, which is a systems-biology approach to personalized medicine that focuses on the underlying causes of disease. That definition of functional medicine is a mouthful. But in a word, it is the medicine of WHY, not WHAT.

Conventional medicine is focused on naming diseases based on geography, body location, and specialty, instead of by the cause, mechanism, or pathway involved. Doctors say you have a liver, kidney, brain, or heart disease. But this approach to naming disease tells you nothing about the cause, and it is quickly becoming obsolete as we understand more about the mysteries of human biology.

Instead of asking what disease you have and what drug should be used to treat it, we must ask WHY the disease has occurred—what are the underlying causes that lead to illness and how do we look under the hood to find out what’s going on. Modern medicine is like trying to diagnose what’s wrong with your car by listening to the noises it makes without ever looking inside to see what’s going on. Functional medicine allows us to look under the hood. It gives us a method for identifying the conditions in which disease arises and shows us how to begin changing those conditions.

This shift toward a more functional, systems-based, environmental approach to treatment is happening in cancer research right now, and this change was one of the main topics explored at TEDMED this year.

Looking at Cancer a New Way: Treatment in the 21st Century

The problem with conventional cancer treatment is simply this: We look at the disease the wrong way. This reality was illustrated over and over again by the leading thinkers in the field of cancer treatment at TEDMED.

For example, Greg Lucier, Chairman of Life Technologies, talked about how thinking about specific cancers is essentially flawed. How we label cancer is no longer synced up with what we know about the origins of cancer or the fact that two people who have cancer with the same name—like breast cancer—can have two completely different diseases which require different treatments. Just because you know the name of your disease, it doesn’t mean you know what’s wrong with you or what to do about it.

Classifying tumors by body site—lung, liver, brain, breast, colon, etc.—misses the underlying causes, mechanisms, and pathways involved in a particular cancer. The fact that cancer appears in a given region of the body tells us nothing about why the cancer developed in the first place. What’s more it gives us no information about how it manifested in a given patient. Two people with cancers in different parts of the body may have developed it for same reasons. Similarly, two people with cancers in the same part of the body may have developed it for different reasons. A patient with prostate cancer and one with colon cancer may have more in common with each other than two patients who have colon cancer.  Historically we have practiced medicine by geography – where a disease occurs in the body. That doesn’t make scientific sense anymore. Now we have the potential to treat illness by understanding the underlying mechanisms and metabolic pathways.

These and other misconceptions about cancer and cancer treatment are leading to terrifying results. From the perspective of curative and preventive therapy, we have lost the war on cancer. Clinton Leaf explained how fancy statistics manipulate the data to show that cancer deaths are going down, while they are in fact going up. Overall cancer rates or incidence is significantly increasing. Deaths from cancer are also increasing. In 2008, there were 565,000 deaths in the US alone. One in three people will get cancer in their lifetime. While few are aware that solid tumors grow slowly for thirty years before they can be detected, 17 million Americans are walking around with cancer somewhere along the continuum from initiation of a cancer cell to detectable tumor.

In the “war” on cancer, we are fighting a losing battle for one simple reason: we’re focusing on the wrong target. As a physician I was trained to focus on the tumor—to burn, poison or cut it out, and then wait, watch and pray for the cancer to stay at bay. Newer gene-targeted treatments will help to improve chemotherapy and improve survival rates, but they won’t prevent cancer in the first place or even prevent it from coming back once you‘ve had it. Hope is not the only way to straddle the scary territory between remission and recurrence. There is a different way of thinking about how to treat the system, not just the cancer that holds promise for a proactive approach to helping both prevent occurrence as well as recurrence.

Cancers arise from a disturbance in your physiological state. Addressing that disturbance is the foundation of future cancer care.

Tending Your Garden: Treating the Soil in Which Cancer Grows

Dr. Anna Barker, deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, explained how new groups of researchers are collaborating to think differently about cancer—to understand and treat it as a systemic problem.

The problem with cancer—one which almost no oncologists think about—is not the tumor, but the garden in which the tumor grows. In caring for a garden, if the weeds get too big, we pull them out, just as we do with cancer using conventional therapies such as chemotherapy, surgery or radiation. But then what?

Traditionally, we have focused on late-stage curative care, and in doing so, we have missed the thinking and the treatments focused on changing the underlying conditions that led to the cancer in the first place. Diet, lifestyle, thoughts, and environmental toxins all interact with our genes to change the landscape of our health.

We have been asking the wrong question about cancer. We have asked “what”: What tumor do you have? What kind of chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation is needed for that tumor? What is your prognosis? Instead, we need to be asking “why” and “how”: Why did this cancer grow? How can you change the conditions that feed and support cancer-cell growth? How did the terrain of your garden become a host to such an invasive weed?

Surprisingly, scientific literature is abundant with evidence that diet, exercise, thoughts, feelings, and environmental toxins all influence the initiation, growth and progression of cancer. If a nutrient-poor diet full of sugar, lack of exercise, chronic stress, persistent pollutants, and heavy metals can cause cancer, could it be that a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet, physical activity, changing thoughts and reactions to stress, and detoxification might treat the garden in which cancer grows? Treat the soil, not the plant. It is a foundational principle of sustainable agriculture, and of sustainable health.

In my oncology rotation in medical school, I asked my professor what percentage of cancer was related to diet. Expecting a gracious but insignificant nod to the role of diet as a cause of cancer, I was surprised when he said that 70 percent of all cancers were related to diet. The 2008-2009 report from the President’s Cancer Panel found that we have grossly underestimated the link between environmental toxins, plastics, chemicals, and cancer risk. They have yet to acknowledge how thoughts, emotions, and overall stress impact that risk—but it is sure to come. The facts that gravitate around cancer support evidence that will motivate us all to take a deeper look.

Consider this fact: 16 percent of all cancers are new, primary cancers in patients who have already had one cancer, not recurrences. This means that people who have cancer are more likely to get a second and independent cancer. Could it be the garden? I recently saw a patient after her third cancer, wondering what she could do to prevent cancer rather than waiting around for another one.

Consider this fact: The lifetime risk of breast cancer of those with the “breast cancer gene” or BRCA1 or 2 is presently 82 percent and increasing every year. Before 1940, the risk of getting cancer for those with the cancer gene was 24 percent. What changed? Our diet, lifestyle, and environment—both physically and emotionally. Might these factors be a better place to look for answers on how to address our cancer epidemic?

Cancers arise from a disturbance in your physiological state. Addressing that disturbance is the foundation of future cancer care. This approach might be called milieu therapy. Rather than treating cancer per se, we treat the milieu in which cancer arises.

And this is manageable. We can enhance immune function and surveillance through dietary and lifestyle changes, nutrient or phytonutrient therapies. We can facilitate our body’s own detoxification system to promote the elimination of carcinogenic compounds. We can improve hormone metabolism and reduce the carcinogenic effects of too much insulin from our high sugar and refined carbohydrate diet. We can help the detoxification of toxic estrogens through modulation of diet, lifestyle, and elimination of hormone-disrupting xenobiotics or petrochemicals.

We can also alter how our genes are expressed by changing the inputs that control that expression: diet, nutrients, phytonutrients, toxins, stress, and other sources of inflammation. And we can focus on less divisive and more generative thoughts that, in turn, create more uplifting emotions—all good fertilizer for the soil in the garden of our body.

The future of cancer care must use medicine’s understanding of the mechanisms of disease and we must use this information to create physiologic and metabolic balance, to design treatments that support and enhance normal physiology. The future of cancer care lies not in finding the best cocktail of chemotherapeutic agents, the right dose of radiation, or a new surgical technique, (all of which are still important and will continue to be refined) but in finding the right way to personalize treatment according to the individual imbalances in each person.

The pieces of the puzzle that hold the answers for cancer prevention and treatment are strewn about the landscape of medical science. They need only be assembled into a story that can guide clinical care. The time is ripe to accelerate this process. Thankfully, more scientists are now exploring the story of how to tend the gardens of our body, mind, and soul.

To learn more about how to tend your garden and create metabolic and physiologic balance for yourself see

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (9)

  • exactly what i have been looking for is the why. i love the approach of going after the cause and not the symptoms. a very good read.

  • Our son Victor will become a Doctor in 2 years, and I was recently talking to him about emphasizing the why information that can lead to preventing diseases like cancer. He stressed the symptoms much more and doesn’t have the time to beware of the nutritional approach to helping prevent and to even cure diseases, such as cancer! I read about an approach of a Doctor who healing many from cancer by juicing healthy organic veggies, such as kale, broccoli and carrots as well as celery. Greens were mentioned very surely in helping those who do have cancer, to fight it with the nutritional components in the greens, which were proven highly successful and cured many. I saved this information, there was a certain approach used which was proven successful, referred to as detoxifying using the Gerson Therapy. It requires a good quality cold-pressed juicer which helps to activate own healing mechanism, which is critical in helping cancer patients to help their bodies fight cancer! It is recommended to use the best quality veggies meaning organic, as much as possible, as well. There was also mentioned a true story written in book format about Doctor Norman Walker who from many decades ago, was told that he only had a few months to live at the age of only 39. He found out about this remarkable therapy, and cvan you believe, he lived to the ripe old age of 117! This col-pressed juicing regimen with this Gerson Therapy also helps diabetics turn their illness around within a few weeks, helps get rid of headaches, improve skin, and helps strengthen the immune system also bettering those who have auto-immune diseases, such as arthritis, and who know, this may help those with ADHD and mental health issues, and many many others!I Crude liver extract and CoQ10 (the best quality) were also mentioned. Also, if a person had more than one-third of their liver still working, that prson would still have a chance to recover and live! Also mentioned is that there is a Gerson Hospital in Mexico which saves people who have cancer! I just thought you needed to hear this, since I just by good chance saw this and decided to read and pay attention to the 89 year old woman, whose Father was a Doctor and he passed this method on, and created it when he had some really bad headaches, and just by luck cured his headaches initially, and a wide host of other illnesses, including cancer patients! ‘A Cancer Therapy’ book was written with 50 documented cancer cases, whereby 48 cancer patients were saved!

    • You are correct Cindy Vien , I’m so glad you told people about this. The rest of the cure is one must give up sugar and the forms of sugar also. Cancer is a mycotoxin (fungus) forms into a yeast – all yeast feeds on sugar . Flower and grains turn into a sugar also. Dr’s don’t know this stuff because they aren’t taught cures , they are taught how to manage illness through medicine. You can have this talk with your Dr. and ask him or her the next time you go in with ANY illness or disease – ” do you know how to cure me ? ” you will not get a straight answer. Try it. Scientists know this but not Dr’s — they are ONLY taught how to manage an illness and reduce your pain and symptoms. Please don’t follow the American Cancer Societies regimen. It does not work — it is pretend

  • Thank you I am not a doctor or have i never been one, however these are the concept that make me excited there is hope. Working on healing cancer with what I can develop in my yard or compound. I stared with solving for virus in plants. The path of my life changed when the love of my life in 2013 was a identification of a head size sarcoma with one mass gone and working on the other. No Chemo, radiation or surgery so far. It will be great to see this mass gone with what we can create. It seems in California it is difficult to find people who understand this concept well. So doctor’s watch over John and we do the work, they help where they are able.. Talent that could do so much more for everyone. Thank you for your excitement for life and learning. I started out helping my brother with type one diabetes to solve . Not the path that I would have traveled just glad I understand and can impact the lives of the ones I love the most. I pray everyday I can do enough or find answers somewhere from doctor’s or else where.

  • I appreciate the weed analogy. What is interesting with this analogy is that you don’t destroy the whole yard (good/healthy) grass along with weeds. Rather you target the elimination of the weeds while strengthening the healthy grass (ie. over seed and provide nutrients so healthy seed grows. So it begs to ask why use chemo and other toxic methods that kills everything in its path including your gut and immune system??? Thanks for the post.

  • I am overjoyed to read your article, however, this is not new information. With all respect, naturopathic medicine is based on these very principles. I have been working with a naturopathic doctor, Dr. Kim Furtado, ND, for years to balance my hormones, heavy metal load, cortisol, diet, gut flora, vitamin d levels, breast health, etc. Naturopathy has changed my life!!! It seeks to cure, to heal, to find the root of the problem. After debating with many conventional physicians over the years about my beliefs in Naturopathic medicine I have stopped telling my physicians that I even use this approach in combination with conventional medicine. Most of them have treated me like it’s a bunch of hooey and I have felt demeaned and frustrated. The truth is that they are the ones who are clueless and so they bash what they don’t know. This is where medicine has failed us beyond words. Please look to these folks, N.D.’s, for guidance because they have immense knowledge about smarter ways to treat illness and how to maintain wellness through the use of diet, exercise, herbs, vitamins and specialized testing. And they understand better than any conventional physician I know about how all of the systems in he body function and how they operate in tandem with each other. Thank you

  • just read the first few paragraphs and I was smiling; this is what was practiced thousands of years ago in Asian countries ( and still continuing in some places where the modern medicine could not reach) with the name of Ayurveda or Tai Chi etc. How many more years of discovery mankind need to trust our forefathers!

  • Dr. Hyman,
    I know a Chinese guy who has never been to any western countries, nor has any western educational background, wrote some articles about conventional medicine years ago echoed with what you said in this article. If you are interested, I will send you two of his articles, one is about basic attitude toward diseases, the other is about the causes of cancer. Very different from what we usually hear, you don’t want to miss it.
    We hope you can take a look at them and find out the logical errors behind them. Thank you for helping us make progress.