We all know it’s our immune system that helps take care of fighting off infections and colds. But did you know that outside of working to keep you healthy during ‘flu season’, your immune system has many other important functions? One of the critical actions that it constantly fills is to support the growth of healthy cells, while keeping unhealthy, or potential cancer cells, at bay. If it wasn’t for your immune system continually surveying and keeping cancer growth under control, eventually all of our body’s would be overrun by cancer. Whether you’ve been diagnosed or are simply interested in lowering your cancer risk, let’s quickly learn how a healthy immune system fights cancer.
Healthy to Unhealthy Cell Balance
Like a busy highway, the billions of cells that make up your immune system are constantly circulating throughout your body defending against any threat that could make you sick. Normally, your body is constantly creating new cells in order to replace healthy cells in every part of your body. Skin, for example, is made up of cells that are turned over and replaced every two to three weeks. Cells that make up your digestive system, on the other hand, are replaced every two to three days. Under normal circumstances, older healthy cells are simply replaced by new healthy cells. So what does this have to do with the immune system and cancer? Well, our body sometimes makes mistakes. Because of the high turnover rate of cell growth, cell division isn’t always perfect. The rate at which some cells grow and divide means errors can happen and that cells can be created slightly damaged. When this happens (which is all the time), it’s the immune system that jumps in, destroys the damaged cells, and brings cell growth and division back into balance.
Your Immune System Keeps Cancer Growth In Check
If it wasn’t for the immune system, newly created (damaged) cells would continue to grow and divide into an ever growing line of damaged cells. This, in essence, is cancer; the uncontrolled growth of abhorrent cells that ultimately create tumours. Luckily, our immune system has enough checks and balances to keep the survival of damaged cells to a bare minimum. This immune system effort, continues its activity 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Our body’s are constantly creating cancer cells, however it’s our immune system that constantly keeps this in check. Natural killer cells, otherwise known as NK cells, are one of the most revered type of immune cell that plays one of the largest roles in controlling the balance between healthy and non healthy cell growth. So as long as your NK cells are primed and functioning properly, the development of cancer is less likely to occur.
How Does Cancer Grow Despite a Healthy Immune System?
When the rate of tumour growth begins to match the activity of our immune system, we enter a stage of equilibrium where the immune system destroys damaged cells at the same pace that healthy cells are born. At this point, if anything causes the immune system to falter or work any less efficiently, cancerous cell growth will over take cancer cell death. Environmental, stress, dietary, and some genetic factors can all contribute to such an unfortunate scenario. Once cancer cells take hold and growth is accelerated, abhorrent cells can not only overrun the immune system, they can evade immune system detection and continue to grow uninhibited. Cancer cells create signals which actually slow the immune system down, as well as ‘mask’ themselves from the immune system by changing the makeup of their surface to which immune cells would otherwise recognize and destroy them.
So How Do I Ensure I Keep My Immune System Working Properly?
Because our immune system is constantly being negatively influenced by many factors, it’s imperative that you support your immune cells in order to stay active and healthy. Controlling stress, sleeping well, eating healthy, and exercising regularly are all basic, yet effective ways to keep your immune system primed. For those who have already been diagnosed with cancer, certain immunotherapy drugs can be used to actually help re-establish the immune systems ability to function and recognize cancer cells once again. From an integrative cancer care perspective (naturopathic medicine), there are a variety of natural compounds and nutrients found in food, supplements and natural medicine which can achieve this same effect on the immune system as well. From a collaborative approach, both naturopathic and conventional medicine (integrative care) tend to work better together to provide an even better chance that your immune system will work optimally as a primary anti cancer tool.
The take home message here is that when it comes to immune system health and cancer, it’s much more desirable to provide support to a system that’s had a history of healthy function versus an immune system that has constantly worked at a sub optimal level for many years. Although cancer is clever and has many ways of evading the immune system, a healthy immune system is the only tool our body has to be able to keep health a priority and cancer cell growth in check.