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The Ecology of Oncology

How disease takes root in the mind-body environment

Dr. Habib Sadeghi
May 24, 2019 · 13 min read

Many years ago, I was returning to Los Angeles from Hawaii and had rushed to the airport to make my flight. I’d put an apple in my carry-on bag to eat on the plane, because there was no time to stop for a meal on the way.

When I passed through security, my bag was pulled off the conveyor belt by an agent who looked like he’d spotted something suspicious. Within seconds of searching my bag, he pulled out the apple and told me I had to throw it away.

I was surprised. I’d taken food on flights before, and it was never a problem. He told me that as a remote chain of islands, Hawaii had its own ecosystem and that there were several types of insects that could invade various kinds of fruit.

While these creatures were common and non-threatening pests in Hawaii, if accidentally introduced into the environment of the mainland U.S., they could proliferate and cause a great deal of damage to orchards throughout the country.

Naturally, I threw the apple away—but the experience got me thinking about how such a tiny creature, which wasn’t a problem in Hawaii, could potentially cause so much damage in a different environment. The difference wasn’t in the bug, but in the habitat in which it found itself. That’s what determined whether it remained docile or became a danger.

This is true with many other invasive species: the Asian carp, for example, which wasn’t aggressive in its native Asia, became extremely aggressive when mistakenly introduced into American waters.

Likewise, when the Japanese knotwood was brought to Europe, it began colonizing English gardens like a weed — even though it wasn’t nearly as intrusive in Japan.

It reminded me of how disease can take root and develop in one person who does yoga daily and eats organic food, while someone else who doesn’t make such healthy choices lives a disease-free life. Science is increasingly showing that it’s the “quality of the soil,” or the physical terrain of the body, as I call it, that’s more important in determining whether or not the seed of sickness—the germ or cancer cell—will take root and flourish.

Overdue Admission

In recent years, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the world’s preeminent authority on cancer research, has finally started talking about the environmental differences in patients’ bodies—why some people get cancer and others don’t.

They began suggesting that if we could figure out the secret, we could prevent the seed of cancer from ever taking root by reconditioning the internal environment, or soil, of the body in a way that was inhospitable to cancer.

For over 60 years, science has been focused solely on a seed-only approach to cancer: examining tumors and how they behave. This has been done without giving any thought to the environment within a patient’s body that allowed them to develop in the first place.

If we could figure out the secret, we could prevent the seed of cancer from ever taking root by reconditioning the internal environment, or soil, of the body in a way that was inhospitable to cancer.

Clearly, the cancer cell is only part of the picture in cancer research, yet historically that’s where 99% of our focus has been.

Naturally, I was excited to hear that traditional medicine was finally beginning to look at cancer not as a stand-alone invasive process, but as a relationship between the cancer cell and the host body that determines whether those cells proliferate and later metastasize.

After all, I’d been saying it for years.

Even when cancer cells are present, if the relationship between them and their environment isn’t mutually supportive, the cancer cells will either be eradicated or remain in a dormant phase indefinitely.

Traditionally, much of the problem with cancer treatment has been, and continues to be, the inability to determine whether cancer will metastasize once it’s found.

Because we have no understanding of how the internal terrain or soil of the patient’s body cooperates with and allows cancer to proliferate, we have no way of knowing in which patients it poses the greatest risk and in which it will most likely be neutralized or remain dormant.

Without being able to make this crucial distinction, the trend has been to over-treat everyone, usually with toxic chemotherapy (which has only a 2% success rate of achieving a 5-year survival) in a one-size-fits-all approach that harms far more patients than it helps.

Treatment & Tragedy

By not understanding which patients’ bodies are the most hospitable for cancer to grow and spread, patients tend to be rushed into aggressive and life-changing treatments as a so-called preventative measure that may not have been necessary in the first place. A perfect example is breast cancer.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is a common breast pathology that science has now labeled stage zero cancer. As absurd as that description is (either you have cancer, or you don’t), DCIS often lies dormant in most women’s bodies and never develops into cancer.

In 2000, the Archives of Internal Medicine examined the records from a study performed at Yale-New Haven Hospital in 1988. Medical records were reviewed for 233 women participating in the study who had their first experience with breast cancer. Of the study participants, 31 were diagnosed with DCIS.

The good news is that none died from cancer or experienced a recurrence.

Unfortunately, half of them chose to have a mastectomy.

To bring clarity to this issue, DCIS has been the subject of many studies, but the most interesting appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine (citation: Moody-Ayers, S et al. (2000). \"Benign\" tumors and \"early detection\" in mammography-screened patients of a natural cohort with breast cancer. Archives of Internal Medicine, 160(8), 1109-1115) and the British Journal of Cancer (citation: Welch, H. Black, W. (1997). Using autopsy series to estimate the disease \”reservoir\” for ductal carcinoma in situ of the breast: how much more breast cancer can we find?. Annals of Internal Medicine. , 127(11), 1023–1028).

Both of these studies reviewed the autopsies of a wide cross-section of women.

In their examinations, they discovered that 40% of the women had DCIS present in their breast tissue at the time of death. The most important point is that these women died from a wide range of causes, including car accidents. DCIS was even present in the breast tissue of women in advanced age.

The point to understand here is that these women walked around the earth, happily living their lives, with DCIS, until they died of something else.

Another example of the early detection and rush-to-treatment disaster, without understanding the relationship between cancer and the patient’s internal environment, happened in South Korea in 2002.

Primary care doctors were given ultrasound devices to scan patients for thyroid cancer. When a nodule was found, it was biopsied. If tests were positive for cancer, the thyroid was surgically removed.

As a result, thyroid cancer rates soared across South Korea to the point at which, by 2014, levels were 15 times higher than they had been in 1993.

Billions were poured into treatment, while tens of thousands of lives were changed forever when they lost their thyroid glands and yet, death rates from thyroid cancer remained unchanged.

What happened?

It wasn’t malpractice because the tests proved the nodules met the criteria for cancer. What doctors never stopped to consider was that within the bodies of the majority of those people, the nodules would never have advanced to the stage of causing clinical symptoms.

These unfortunate people were over-diagnosed with a condition that would never have developed in their bodies, and thus were over-treated as if it actually existed.

Such are the tragedies of the dominance of seed-only science and the subsequent rush to “preventative” and aggressive treatment for a disease that would have remained dormant in the patients’ bodies their entire lives.

Unrealized Expectations

It was English physician Dr. Stephen Paget, son of the founder of modern pathology Dr. James Paget, who first put forth the theory in 1899 that the proliferation of cancer depended largely on local conditions.

He also discovered that when cancer spread, it didn’t do so in its original site but gravitated toward areas in the body that were far from random.

In examining more than 300 patients whose breast cancer had metastasized in other areas, he found in nearly 80% of the cases that the cancer cells bypassed other organs and healthy tissue, overwhelmingly in favor of the liver, lungs, and spleen. Even certain bones were preferred over others.

This showed not only how a patient’s physical terrain could be accommodating to cancer, but that certain tissues within the body itself were more hospitable to cancer than others. Unfortunately, it was centrifugal theory—the idea that cancer takes hold in one spot and spreads out from there like an expanding ink stain—that found favor in the medical community and later led to severe, seed-only interventions such as the radical mastectomy advocated by William Halsted.

Now it seems that after more than a century, Paget’s “seed and soil theory,” as he called it—that metastasis is the result of a pathological relationship between cancer cells and their environment—is finally receiving legitimate consideration in mainstream medicine.

Of course, this comes at a time when billions have been spent on genetic testing with little return. So far, gene expression assays such as MammaPrint and Oncotype DX can help doctors identify whether a small percentage of patients are at low risk for metastasis, helping them avoid chemotherapy or determine whether they might benefit from targeted therapy with Herceptin.

In either case, they still have no clue as to how the internal terrain became hospitable to cancer in the first place. Together, cancer cells and their environment form their own ecosystem in which, if the terrain is successfully altered, the cancer will wither and die, like an acid-loving plant trying to grow in alkaline soil.

While genetics are an important piece of the puzzle, we know from other research and epigenetic studies that simply possessing a particular gene does not mean it is or will ever be activated to create a certain condition. Much of that also depends on the quality of the terrain within our mind-body environment, which we’ll explore later, and how the energy generated by our emotions alters our physiology to become supportive of disease.

Environment & Evidence

We know that tumors constantly shed about 20,000 cancer cells into every milliliter of blood.

In a day, a tumor can slough off nearly one-tenth of its weight. If conventional wisdom held true that all cancer cells were certain to spread cancer wherever they land, it would then be a fact that people with cancer would have metastasis happening all over their body—and yet, most don’t.

This is another enigma of cancer and the body environment that science has yet to explain.

An even stranger example of this phenomenon is the case of patient D.G., as he’s called in Australian medical literature. Having been diagnosed with melanoma, D.G. was treated with a surgical resection and went on about his life with no other incident. Years later, he donated a kidney to a friend who was prescribed immune-suppressing drugs to prevent rejection of the kidney. Within weeks, the friend began to show many tiny metastases in the kidney and had it quickly removed.

The cancer had come from D.G’s body, but once it found a new environment inside his friend, it began to proliferate. It was obvious that while not truly cancer-free, D.G.’s body was keeping it suppressed because his internal environment was no longer conducive to its metastasis.

Arming Immunity

As with the case of D.G, individual immunity continues to be the focal point of cancer therapy research, with low immunity being labeled as one of the host factors that make an internal environment favorable for malignancies.

For example, we know that chronic inflammation in the body negatively impacts immunity and increases the risk of cancer. Studies on mice whose lungs were exposed to thousands of dormant cancer cells show that only after a portion of the original group of mice were later exposed to an inflammatory lung stimulus, similar to pneumonia, did the dormant cells wake up and turn aggressive.

Other research shows that not only will a tumor grow at the place on a chick’s wing where a cancer-causing virus is injected, but that inflammation caused by an injury on the opposite wing will cause a tumor to develop there, as well.

The body creates different kinds of immune cells for various purposes, and of particular interest to scientists studying cancer and immunity are natural killer cells, or NK cells. Unlike other immune cells that are designed to constantly memorize the identity of new invaders so they can eradicate them quickly at the next infection, NK cells don’t learn anything new.

Instead, they are part of the body’s innate immune response in that their only job is to seek out and destroy aberrant host cells. The strength of NK immunity is a crucial factor in preventing metastasis in the body.

Years ago, it was found that cancer cells employ special proteins to trigger the brakes on the body’s immune cells. When certain drugs interrupted this deactivation process, the body’s immune cells re-engaged and started attacking the cancer. Experiments into NK cell activity and how to activate immunity or amplify it is an ongoing part of immune regulation research.

Prevention Priorities

These are some of the new terrain or soil-based research projects scientists are exploring, and while promising, it will likely be years before any of them evolve into general treatment for patients.

Only when we can separate ourselves from exclusively pursuing seed-based or cancer cell-only theories will we finally understand how to alter the ecology of the body, so its internal environment isn’t conducive to cancer in the first place.

Then, we’ll be able to distinguish who can benefit from it versus the small percentage of patients who require aggressive intervention.

Ideally, it means answering the denominator problem: the numerator is you, and the denominator is everyone else who is at risk or was exposed, but didn’t get sick. Why were you the only one who caught your nephew’s cold even though everyone else held him at the party, too? How can some elderly people have smoked cigarettes their entire lives and never die of cancer?

You don’t have to wait for years for the research to filter down to patient therapies to start changing your body ecology to be healthier and less hospitable to everything from colds to cancer.

We know stress suppresses immune function and therefore is a significant risk factor for countless disease processes.

Your job is to eliminate as much stress as possible from your life, especially when it comes to work and relationships.

I’m not talking about having a big project due at work once in a while, but chronic stress that goes on for weeks, months or years.

If you hate your job, get a new one.

If you’re in an unfulfilling or abusive relationship that can’t be salvaged, get out of it.

If you have friends or relatives who don’t treat you with kindness and respect, distance yourself from them. Your health depends on it, and you deserve better.

Chronic stress tears us down so gradually that we don’t even notice it. Low-grade stress becomes our new normal, and we forget what it’s like to live a life that’s joyful, inspiring and full of people and things that uplift us.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have problems from time to time, but if three days have passed during which you haven’t laughed out loud at least once, spent quality time with someone you love, or engaged in a creative activity that energizes you, you need to make some real changes because living a life that’s “not bad” all the time isn’t a life that’s really good most of the time.

Research on laughter regularly shows its power to change body chemistry, boost immunity, and speed healing.

Spending more time doing what you love has also shown to impact recovery from an illness that was thought to be terminal. In fact, experiencing overwhelming joy and excitement has been known to increase the production of interleukin 2 in the body, an immune system-activating protein that is administered exogenously to patients with kidney cancer. Sharing feelings of deep love with those we care about not only helps us live longer, but causes our DNA strands to expand and even switch specific genes on and off.

These are the things I call spiritual nutrition that are absolutely essential for feeding the soul and changing the soil of the body. Speaking of food, the body even absorbs fewer nutrients (the building blocks of our health) from what we consume, if we don’t love what we’re eating.

Feelings as Fertilizer

Having worked in integrative medicine my entire career, I always advise patients facing chronic illness to search their personal histories for residual stress from traumatic events that may have happened years ago, some of which they may have long forgotten.

The mind has an amazing ability to protect us from the emotional aftermath of problems we don’t want to, or can’t, deal with at the time of their occurrence so that we can get on with our lives.

The problem is that feelings buried alive never die.

They come back to haunt us in serious ways, quite often in the form of illness. This is because our internal terrain has changed significantly due to years of conscious or even unconscious stress from emotions such as abandonment, bitterness, regret, jealousy, and anger.

Realizing and releasing the residual stress generated by these emotions is crucial in healing from any chronic disease, and especially for disease prevention because feelings act as the fertilizer of our physical soil.

Living a life that’s “not bad” all the time isn’t a life that’s really good most of the time.

In service to helping patients everywhere incorporate a terrain or soil-based component into their current treatment, I recently released the book, The Clarity Cleanse: 12 Steps to Finding Renewed Energy, Spiritual Fulfillment, and Emotional Healing. It contains the same emotional exploration and resolution exercises I prescribe to my patients struggling with serious illnesses, which is the same program I developed during my recovery from cancer more than 20 years ago.

It also contains an optional 30-day diet to be used during the emotional work. While it’s not mandatory, experience has shown that the diet often enhances results because of its ability to relieve pressure on the pancreas, making both the physical and emotional bodies better conditioned to release their toxins.

By focusing much more on each patient’s individual life, history, and physiology, we move much closer to solving the denominator problem: why YOU got sick.

It relieves us from spending all our time and research funds on searching for a catch-all, silver bullet solution for a disease that doesn’t have an impact on everyone. If we intend to cure the chronic diseases that have reached epidemic proportions in the last 100 years, it’s time to personalize diagnostics and treatment in a very intimate way.

It’s time to make physical ecology a standard part of oncology.

For more health and inspirational insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit to sign up for the monthly newsletter, check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN, or for messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagramand Twitter @beingclaritynow.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment in mind, body, and soul.

Dr. Habib Sadeghi

Written by

Dr. Habib Sadeghi is the founder of Be Hive of Healing, an integrative medical center based in Los Angeles, and author of The Clarity Cleanse.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment in mind, body, and soul.

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