This photo was taken of me at the end of a hot & sunny vacation in Mexico. As you can see, no sun rays are actually allowed to touch this face / neck / chest. Yes vanity, and trying to look 26 forever, has a little something to do with my decision to cover up in the sun, but I also come for a family of melanomas and am doing everything I can to correct the damage I did in tanning beds in my teens (thankfully I wised up a few years into my undergrad degree and have spent the last decade covered head to toe in organic, non-toxic sun screen). If you’re a patient of mine you may have noticed some interesting things happening to my face over the past month or so. I believe in full transparency, and that doctors shouldn’t be held to unrealistic perfect standards of health, so I’ve decided to speak out about my personal experience with skin cancer. Since 2020 started I’ve gone through 3 rounds of topical chemotherapy, biopsies and finally surgical excision to remove squamous cell carcinomas from my face.
I’m telling my story for two reasons. First, this skin cancer experience is a lesson in advocating for your own health. I’ve had extensive medical training and it still took me over 10 years to convince a doctor to check out a spot on my face that I knew wasn’t right. My skin cancer started as a pre-cancerous lesion called an actinic keratosis (AK), which would never have progressed into skin cancer and have been much simpler to treat if my complaints had been taken serious a decade ago. I finally paid a plastic surgeon to take my case and biopsy the lesion in order to confirm what I already knew – sub-lesson: sometimes you need to pay for good care, you’re health is 100% worth it. Second, I hope that those of you with family histories of skin cancer, or a personal of tanning bed / sun abuse (people who use a tanning bed before the age of 35 increase their risk for melanoma by 75%) can walk away from this post feeling empowered and motivated to look into your own genetics in order to determine your risk of developing cancer. Knowledge is power, and a strong understanding of the genetic predispositions that got me here in the first place (genes related to poor oxidative defences and mutations in tumour suppressor genes) have helped me determine the most effective diet, lifestyle and supplement changes to protect myself moving forward. Instead of using this information to be anxious and fearful over my health, I’ve chosen to be pro-active when it comes to cancer prevention; to use what I know about my genetics and the underlying pathophysiology of cancer to stay as healthy as I possibly can through the next 60 (here’s hoping!) years of my cancer-free life.
I’ve put together this Guide to Natural Skin Cancer Prevention for those of you who have already done your genetic testing and are worried about your own skin health. If you haven’t investigated your gene health yet I strongly encourage you to work with a functional medicine doctor with extensive training in genomics to get an understanding of how your genes may be putting you at risk for certain health conditions – while this can feel scary I promise you it’s so empowering to finally understand the root cause of WHY you have a strong family history of cancers / heart disease / diabetes, etc. Cancer doesn’t run in families (with the exception of a very small number of definitive cancer genes), but gene patterns that make one more susceptible to developing cancer do. Since my diagnosis I’ve spent 100’s of hours pouring over the research to develop my own evince-based protocol for skin cancer prevention and I hope my guide inspires you to take action when it comes to your own skin health. These are my top-tips when it comes to healthy, cancer-free skin:
Cover Up Your Skin
While it may seem obvious at this point that cumulative UV exposure is the most important risk factor for AK, squamous / basal cell carcinomas and melanomas I still see way too many patients still using tanning beds or returning from vacations with cancer-promoting sun burns. I’ve covered up religiously with a hat and sunscreen for over a decade now and I still ended up with SCC from sun exposure in my teens combined with crappy genes (Ashkenazi jews have it tough when it comes to genetic health as anyone who’s done medical training knows that being jewish is a risk factor for many many common diseases). Now you won’t see me leave the house without slathering on non-toxic, Environmental Working Group-approved sunscreens and a hat or visor. I also plan my days while on vacation around peak sun times: from 11:00am – 3:00pm you’ll likely find me curled up in the shade with a book or taking a little siesta in my hotel room. My daily skin care routine starts with Glo antioxidant defence day cream with an SPF of 50 on my face, chest, ears and neck, followed by Glo skin primer with an additional SPF of 30 (both of which are available through the clinic). If it’s sunny, or I’m on vacation, I’ll follow that up with extra Glo powdered sun screen on my face and chest and Green Beaver or Beauty Counter sunscreen on the rest of my body.
While it’s not always the obvious thing to consider when discussing skin cancer, imbalanced hormones can have a negative on your cancer risk because they impact your overall immune function. Progesterone has been shown to have positive effects on that P53 tumour suppressor gene which it’s specifically so important in the pathophysiology of skin cancer prevention. Progesterone is the beautiful metabolism-boosting, anxiety-reducing, immune-balancing hormone made after ovulation during a healthy luteal phase. Unfortunately stress, nutritional deficiencies and estrogen dominance can all contribute to sub-optimal progesterone status, leaving you vulnerable. Short cycles, heavy menses, PCOS, wicked PMS, or painful periods can all be a sign that progesterone levels are low. Salivary hormone testing is your best bet to determine your baseline progesterone status as levels are diurnal and can therefore be unreliable in blood-work. Your ND or functional medicine MD can help you test these hormones and prescribe the proper hormone balancing protocol to help get you back on track. You can also begin balancing hormones right away with a simple seed cycling protocol and by increasing your daily intake of Indole-3-carbinol-containing vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts. Not only does I3C help to balance out estrogen and progesterone ratios, studies show that it also improves P53 tumour suppressor function and induces cancer cell death making it a cancer-fighting super nutrient.
Support Your Immune System
While cancer is primarily caused by inflammation and DNA damage, it’s prevented by your immune system. Most of us will have cancerous cells in our body at some point in time, this is normal, it’s your immune system’s job to tag cancer cells and eliminate them before they have a chance to spread. I personally have a genetic mutation in the P53-tumour suppressor gene which means my immune system is not as efficient at identifying and removing cancerous cells. The p53 gene plays a central role in the development of squamous cell carcinoma; mutations in this gene are found in 90% of SCC and up to 100% of AK cases – which is why it’s so important to understand your own genetic risk factors. The following evidence-based natural remedies and supplements can improve your immune system health so that it can be more accurate at tagging and removing harmful cells:
- Zinc – This mineral is critical when it comes to supporting your overall immune system and is needed to make healthy DNA. It can also play a role in preventing skin cancer by stabilizing P53 gene activity: a recent study showed that research subjects with genetic mutations in tumour suppressor genes were able to normalize P53 activity while taking zinc supplements. Zinc supplementation can be hard your digestive system and can even deplete other key minerals so it’s always best to work with an ND when deciding which dose and form of this nutrient is best for you. You can also safely, and effectively get zinc from dietary sources including Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, oysters, red meat and chickpeas.
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris) – If you’ve been following along for a while you already know that I’m a total mycophile. Mushrooms are wonderful for the immune system because they contain compounds called beta-glucans; naturally occurring polysaccharides found in the cell wall of certain fungi. These polysaccharides stimulate immune cells called macrophages, cytokines and natural killer cells to improve you body’s anti-body response and increase your natural cancer-preventing immune surveillance. Cordyceps are specifically studied in skin cancer because they can help restore normal P53 tumour surveillance to augment your immune responsiveness to abnormal and undifferentiated cells – many cancers are caused by incomplete differentiation of cells and the polyphenols found in cordyceps mushrooms induces completion of cell differentiation to stabilize cellular DNA and preventing cancer cells from proliferating.
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D provides the ultimate skin-cancer paradox: UV light from sunshine causes cancer while at the same time providing this essential cancer-fighting vitamin. Topical sunscreens have been definitively shown to prevent cancer. This is an undisputed fact proven time and time again by rigorous medical research (unfortunately I’m noticing a worrisome trend on social media of ‘wellness influencers’ & ‘health coaches’ “debunking the sunscreen myth”, please make sure you’re getting your heal information from qualified doctors and specialists). Sunscreens unfortunately also block vitamin D production by 97-100%. I encourage all of my patients to test vitamin D levels bi-yearly, once in the winter, and once in the summer time. Levels should be sitting around 125nmol/L all times of the year as this is the number associated with improved immune function and optimal cancer surveillance. Work with your ND or MD to figure out baseline vitamin D levels and determine your optimal daily dose.
Physiological stress can have a profound impact on your overall health but is especially important when it comes to immune function and cancer surveillance. Prolonged stress can lead to chronic inflammation which is associated with in increase in cancer cell growth rates. It also leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as staying up late, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, or overeating sugary / unhealthy foods. All of which can increase your risk of developing cancer.
Honestly, I have a lot of stress in my life right now – I care so much about all of my patients and put a ton of pressure on myself to show up to work with the most up-to-date and well researched protocols for you guys. While I’ve limited my in-clinic hours to 2 full days and 2-half days weekly to try and reduce my stress I still spend hours of week creating content for you guys, researching for appointments and just generally worrying about you all! I also have genes that make me more susceptible to increased physiological responses to lifestyle stress (yes, I’m going to keep bringing it back to genetics because it’s such a critical tool to understanding your health!) including the ADRA1A gene which causes increased cortisol levels as well as genes related to increased levels of anxiety – likely due to my family’s unique history. My grandma is a holocaust survivor, and the strongest, most incredible, graceful woman that I know. She lost most of her family during the war and spent the majority of WW2 hidden in a convent. Fortunately / unfortunately our genes can actually change in response to how much stress our ancestors experienced, this phenomena is known as epigenetics and refers to the way in which you body can turn on and off certain genes in response to your environment. Studies done out of Harvard show that grandchild and children of holocaust survivors had significantly higher levels of stress and anxiety compared to control groups and increased epigenetic expression of ‘stress genes’.
Between being a doctor and battling stress genes it means that I have to work harder than most to keep my stress at a reasonable level and a focus on stress-management is one of the most important things I’ve taken away from my cancer diagnosis. Our diagnoses, symptoms, pain, etc. are all messengers from our body that something we’re doing isn’t working and for myself it’s quite obvious that living in a state of stress wasn’t working for me. I’ve found a supplement and lifestyle protocol that is currently working for me including daily yoga and meditation and tons of adaptogens. This shift to making mindfulness and movement a priority has had profound impacts on my stress, I’ve even altered my clinic schedule to accommodate my yoga classes and won’t hesitate to cut down my hours further if my stress gets out of control once again. The silver lining in all of this is that I’ve realized that my health and well being is the most important thing as it’s critical to how I show up in my work and relationships. I now truly understand I can’t pour from an empty cup and I can’t make myself sick at the expense of taking care of everyone around me.
While meditation, daily bubble baths, and yoga all bring me joy and peace you need to find what works for your personal stress management and commit to those activities every single day. The following herbs and lifestyle tips are also specifically studied in skin-cancer prevention and may be a good place to start:
- Chamomile tea (Matricaria chamomilla) – 2 – 3 cups daily. Chamomile is a beautiful calming herb that has been well studied in anxiety and stress. Is also contains a nutrient called apigenin which can have cancer suppressing effects in the body.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) – This Ayurvedic herb is my go-to for stressed out women because it helps modulate cortisol levels and can improve overall response to stress. It can also improve thyroid output to give you a little more energy and resilience in the face of life’s daily stressors. Studies show that Ashwagandha supplementation can also growth of skin, breast, central nervous system, colon, and lung cancer cells without negatively affecting normal cells.
- Sleep – Restless, interrupted sleep, insufficient sleep and irregular sleep patterns have all been linked to elevated cancer risk. Studies show increased risks in skin, breast, prostate, and thyroid cancers in people with poor quality sleep. Sleep is our time to rest and repair, your immune system does most of it’s healing and cancer cell surveillance while in deep restorative sleep so it’s no wonder that poor sleep has such a profound effect on cancer risk. Aim for 7 hours of good quality sleep nightly (you can use the aura ring, fit bit, or various sleep apps to track your deep sleep) and speak to your ND if you’re having a hard time falling or staying asleep. Sleeping pills are not the answer here since they disrupt restorative sleep and inhibit your cancer-fighting sleep hormone melatonin but your functional medicine naturopath can help you explore options like acupuncture, melatonin supplementation and GABA-binding herbs to help reset your sleep patterns.
Next time you see me you may notice a little scar / redness from where cancerous cells were removed from my face .. but honestly you probably wont! I’m healing like wolverine thanks to early detection and a customized supplement and lifestyle protocol that has supercharged my healing. Feel free to contact me if you’re interesting in learning more about how your genes impact your risk of developing skin cancer, or if you’d like help developing your own cancer-prevention protocol.