Almost a decade ago I was a good candidate for cervical cancer.
I was young, 24, a smoker and on the birth control pill for almost a decade. While not especially promiscuous, I had had more than one partner and, at that age, thought I was invincible.
Until I spent an afternoon in my doctor’s office, wrapped in a paper-thin smock, crying as she mentioned the “C” word – cancer.
The reality: I was far from dying from cervical cancer.
Still, despite the prevalence of cervical dyslasia and despite the quick and often painless method of finding and treating the abnormality – through Pap smears and surgery – an estimated 1,500 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed this year; 420 women will die from the disease. For a cancer that is almost completely preventable these figures are startlingly high.
Unfortunately may women, including my 24-year-old self, do not realize that dysplasia is not a symptom of cancer but rather, the precursor for the potential of cervical cancer. What’s worse is the many women lead a life that exasperates the body’s attempt to fight off this disease, simply because they do not know that the cell abnormality can be easily and effectively treated using holistic rather than conventional treatments.
Dr. Carolyn DeMarco, a holistic physician and Canadian authority on women’s natural health, believes that early pre-cancerous changes to the cervix (known medically as dysplasia) can not only be reversed, but also prevented through the use of nutritional supplements and lifestyle changes.
“The cervix is very sensitive to a shortage of nutrients and it’s an accurate reflection of overall nutrient deficiency,” explained DeMarco. While conventional medicine concedes the link between toxins and the mucous membrane that surrounds the cervix, this style of medicine often overlooks the nutritional link.
This was a fact I knew intimately. At 24, I thought I was healthy. I was a healthy weight and height; I could walk up a flight of stairs; I slept soundly, most of the time; and emotionally I was as even-keeled as could be expected. What I did not realize is that a two-pack a day smoking habit, combined with coffee, red-meat and a fast-food/eat-out lifestyle provided poor nutritional stability for my body.
I remember standing, partially naked and crying in my doctor’s office, acutely aware that I needed to learn how to treat my body, and my cervix, better. And I needed to learn quickly.
It appears that certain factors are consistently linked with cervical dysplasia/cancer; these include the early onset of sexual activity (particularly before age 18), multiple sexual partners, and cigarette smoking combined with the birth control pill. But in recent years, researchers have found that the chief culprit is the human papilloma virus (HPV), the sexually transmitted disease (STD) which is known to cause genital warts, and a virus that may be too contagious and too small to be prevented by the use of a condom.
Armed with this knowledge I began to examine my own life. Obviously smoking is a known carcinogen, which helps to increase the risk of cancer. According to DeMarco, recent studies recorded the amount of carcinogens in the cervical mucous at 10 to 20 times higher than in the blood. Combine this with the hormones of the birth control pill, which cause nutritional deficiencies including folic acid, vitamin C, B6, B12 and zinc, and I began to appreciate how depleted my immune system system was (and how unable it would be to fend off viruses that can attack the body including HPV). Considering that a variety of doctors now concede that viruses, in particular HPV, cause cervical dysplasia and I began to get the bigger picture on my little cervix.
“Approximately 15 to 40 percent of sexually active people carry HPV,” said Dr. Gordon Lickrish, a gynecologist/oncologist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital. “The longer you are sexually active, and the more partners you have, the greater your chance of coming into contact with the virus.” Lickrish adds that condoms, the typical protection against STDs, are not effective in preventing HPV transmission. “The size of the virus can get through the small micro holes.”
So what is a girl to do?
According to DeMarco and other nutritional advocates, the best way to treat potential disease is prevention rather than treatment.
And that’s exactly what I started to do a decade ago. Four days after my diagnosis I took a puff of my last cigarette. While quitting was excrutiating (particularly when the method used was cold turkey) it was the best decision I made. As soon as I was through the withdrawal symptoms I found I had more energy, I slept better and I no longer craved unhealthy foods (wanted, yes; craved, no). I continued to practice safe
sex (a habit instilled in me by my parents who were aware of the dangers and also aware of the importance of their role in shaping my healthy attitude towards sexuality). And I changed my diet. The first thing I did was begin to eat foods rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C, folate (vitamin B9) and folic acid. Typically this meant introducing more fruits and vegetables into my diet. I also cut out red meat and lots of the greasy food alternatives.
Thankfully my new dietary choices were guided by research. Several population-based studies in North American and Europe conducted over the last two decades suggest that eating a diet rich in nutrients can help to protect against cancer, particularly cervical cancer. In fact, research suggests that individuals deficient in beta-carotene and folate are morel likely to develop cancerous or precancerous cervical lesions – although this relationship does remain inconclusive. These studies also suggest that diets rich in selenium, vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6 may also be of benefit. Again, the use of these nutrients and the prevention or treatment of cervical dysplasia has not been sufficiently proven.
While conclusive proof is still elusive on the importance of supplements, herbs and nutrition in preventing disease, I, for one, am a convert.
The image of two massive lesions on my cervix (seen through a medical camera inserted into my uterus) has been a constant reminder of how dangerously wrong my health can go when I don’t take care of this body. The sight of those lesions helped reinforce my decision for lifestyle changes. Green tea and fresh tomatoes became regular components of my diet as coffee consumption decreased and smoking disappeared.
Over the years I have heard stories of women who repeatedly require surgery and biopsies in order to deal persistent and recurring dysplasia – a fate I was told to expect ten years ago as they cut out the lesions inside my body. Yet, a decade later, with a new diet and a preventative attitude I am cancer-spot free. And my body thanks me everyday.
Originally published in Vitality Magazine in March 2007