Rethinking Cancer

The “C” word. Many people dare not even think about it, fearful that the monster will someday awaken within them if they do. Someday it might come for our pets too, and if it does, our greatest weapons may be useless against its attack. To many, cancer is synonymous with “certain death”.   After all, it has no cure, and there is really nothing we can do but hope and pray that it doesn’t claim us or our loved ones. Right? Wrong!  There are actually many things that can be done to prevent cancer from striking your companion. A familiar adage says “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” but with cancer, prevention really is the cure.  However, an ounce is hardly enough to do the job,  especially when we consider what our companion animals are up against.

To illustrate the latter point, we need only look as far as the pet food aisle of the local supermarket. Labels on bargain brand commercial foods show pictures of beautiful dogs and cats relishing meals of tasty, visually appealing meat chunks or kibble. They entice buyers with descriptions like “turkey dinner with gravy,” “seafood buffet,” or “braised beef.” But whose needs are best served by these foods – ours or our pets’? The answer will have a strong influence on the health of your companion, and may even mean the difference between a long, healthy life and early death.

By looking beyond the clever packaging to identify what really goes into these foods, some disturbing truths are revealed. At best, economy brand dog and cat foods are made with byproducts of the human food industry – beaks, feet, lymph nodes and hide – waste materials that humans refuse to eat. At worst, they can contain the remains of euthanized animals, road kill and even cancerous flesh. Then there are the chemical preservatives, rendered fats and indigestible protein substitutes that can lead to toxic buildups of potentially carcinogenic waste compounds in the body. The list goes on, and most pet lovers allow it because they have never learned to interpret what those weird words on food labels really mean. The manufacturers who specialize in such foods are in the business of making money, and animal wellness is not their primary concern. Because animals do not carry currency and couldn’t care less about the appearance of food and its packaging, the marketing of cheap, low grade pet food is designed to appeal to our visual perceptions, our pocketbooks, and our needs for convenience. The end result is that the buyer is happy, but Rover eats garbage and ends up chronically ill, perhaps with cancer.

Because they derive most of their nutrition from meat sources, dogs, cats and other carnivores require a much higher quality meat than we do. Likewise, herbivorous animals require fresh, wholesome, raw vegetables and quality whole grains. Most consumers who buy bargain basement foods will probably never realize their pets are malnourished and at a higher risk of developing cancer – until it’s too late.

Keeping the Immune System Healthy

Of the many forms of cancer that strike down millions of companion animals each year, all have something in common – they all take advantage of a weakened host. A healthy immune system is the most powerful form of cancer prevention and intervention. Many holistic practitioners and cancer researchers theorize that a healthy body actually contracts and eliminates cancer many times over the course of a lifetime, and that a strong immune system eliminates tumors in early stages of development, before they can do harm. The holistic approach to cancer prevention honors this natural resistance, and starts by providing the immune system with the tools and fuels it needs to perform at its best. This means supplying the body with good, wholesome, clean food and supplements such as antioxidant vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.

Optimize the Diet

In my opinion, nothing beats a well balanced, home prepared diet. By making your companion’s meals yourself, you can maintain total quality control over each ingredient that goes into the food dish. Making home prepared pet food is simple and surprisingly affordable, and dozens of excellent pet nutrition books, complete with recipes, are as close as your local bookseller. Some excellent natural recipe commercial foods are available, too. Buy a brand that has a good reputation with natural pet supply retailers. Food for carnivores should have as their first ingredient a specific type of meat, such as chicken, lamb or turkey. For herbivores, a simply defined vegetable or grain should be listed first, preferably in certified organic form. Avoid products that list meat ingredients as “byproducts,” “meat meal,” or “digest.” This means the food contains substandard ingredients. Evaluate dietary carbohydrates Although grains are essential to the health of birds and herbivores, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that for dogs and cats, excessive intake of carbohydrates may support development of pre-existing cancerous tumors. This isn’t to say carbohydrates actually cause cancer, but they may help feed it. In order to grow, tumors require considerable amounts of glucose, the molecular chains that make up carbohydrates. This suggests that diets containing large percentages of corn, wheat, soy and other grains may be inappropriate for dogs and cats that have been diagnosed with cancer. From a preventative standpoint, it might also mean that excessive carbohydrates could fuel the growth of small tumors that would otherwise be eliminated by the body’s immune system. Dogs, cats, and other carnivores don’t really need much, if any, grain in their diets anyway – their bodies are able to derive enough glucose from good quality meats. Again, check food labels.   Here’s a few points to remember:

  • Choose a food (or make your own) that is comprised of real, whole food ingredients— like “chicken”, “fish” or whole fresh vegetable ingredients.  AVOID BYPRODUCTS!
  • If grains or grain byproducts are listed in the first sentence or two, the food probably contains more carbohydrates than your companion needs.
  • Avoid chemical preservatives Pet foods that contain BHT, BHA, ethoxyquin (the worst of all) or other chemical preservatives should be avoided, as they may be linked to various forms of cancer.
  • Select a food that is naturally preserved with vitamin E or tocopherols, a natural vitamin E derivative.

Supplement the Diet

Supplement with EFAs and digestive enzymes Your companion’s diet should consist of highly digestible proteins and fats, high quality fiber, and a full complement of antioxidant and immune supportive minerals and vitamins. Vitamins A, B-complex, B-12, D and E, selenium and iron are especially important, as they all have strong cancer-fighting properties that help support a healthy immune system. While any premium quality, all-natural pet food will contain most of the vitamins and minerals your companion needs, it’s still a good idea to add some supplements to your pet’s diet.

Essential Fatty Acids – A good essential fatty acid (EFA) supplement should be at the top of the list. EFAs are fat-carried nutrients that every mammal needs to maintain healthy smooth muscle organs (the heart, reproductive system, etc.), protect and build liver cells, and maintain healthy skin, coat, and joint tissues. They also possess powerful antioxidant activities that help the liver and immune system remove carcinogenic substances from the body. All animals require Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, but many dogs and cats either do not get enough, or they get too much on the Omega 6 side of their diets. Omega 6 fatty acids are present in most grains and vegetable oils, and can contribute to inflammatory problems if not kept in check by a proper balance of Omega 3 fatty acids— which work toward the opposite— to inhibit the body’s inflammatory responses.   Although many manufacturers of premium brand pet foods add essential fatty acids to their products, there is no way of determining whether viable amounts remain in the food at meal time, so add it yourself. Several great quality EFA supplements are available. The best ones are formulated with wild fish oils and are packaged exclusively for animals.  I like fish oil that is encapsulated in soft gel caps that protect the product from spoilage.

Digestive Enzymes – A good digestive enzyme powder is also needed. When added to each meal, digestive enzymes aid with digestion, improve transport of nutrients across blood and cell barriers, and optimize the body’s ability to eliminate waste materials that may otherwise accumulate or transform into cancer-feeding toxins.

Clean Up the Living Environment

Many household chemicals may be very harmful to animals. Kitchen and bathroom cleaners, lawn and garden chemicals, building materials, cigarette smoke and even the fumes from a new carpet may contribute to your pet’s risk of cancer. In fact, unbeknownst to millions of loving pet owners, a virtual plethora of carcinogenic material exists under most kitchen sinks. Chemical herbicides and pesticides rank at the top of the list of carcinogenic substances that our pets are exposed to every day. Organophosphates, a group of carcinogenic chemicals used in dozens of weed killers, have been linked to lymphoma, one of the most prevalent forms of cancer in both humans and animals. Bug sprays are used with reckless abandon, and can remain in the environment for many years. For instance, even after being banned from use in 1977, DDT is still showing up in soil and water samples. Pesticides act by destroying organ structures or shutting down vital body functions. However, very little study has been done on the long term effects of such chemicals, and most pets are exposed to small quantities every day. Over time, any form of poison is likely to have a cumulative impact upon the body – especially the nervous system, liver and endocrine system. Many people insist that because such products are used with no apparent ill effects upon themselves, they must be safe for animals. But consider this: we walk above and around most of this stuff while animals walk with their faces in it all the time. Not only are they breathing these potential carcinogens in much greater concentration than we are, they are also licking it off their feet and bodies. As well, animals have shorter lifespans and faster rates of metabolism than we do, which means household chemicals have the potential of killing them much faster than they can kill us. It may be impossible to abolish enough of these toxins from the environment to assure a healthy future for our pets. They’re in our water, in the parks, in the air. Nevertheless, a lot can be done at home to reduce your loved one’s exposure to carcinogens. Vinegar and water can be used instead of ammonia-based glass cleaners. Products made with citrus oils will cut grease and kill harmful bacteria in the kitchen and bathroom. Non-toxic options exist for lawn and garden applications. Try to dispose of anything that says “harmful if ingested or inhaled.” And please, need I even mention cigarette smoke?

Reconsider Vaccinations

Although many pet care professionals and drug researchers will tell you that regularly scheduled vaccinations are an important part of disease prevention, a growing number of experts disagree. Vaccines do carry risks, especially in animals with pre-existing health problems. Even vaccine manufacturers admit that their products should only be used with animals in good health. The idea behind a vaccine is to force the immune system into making antibodies that will protect against a specific virus. However, there is growing debate over when, why, and how often animals should be vaccinated. In Kirk’s Current Veterinary Therapy IX, one of the primary reference texts of modern veterinary medicine, authors Tom Phillips, DVM, PhD and Ronald Schultz, PhD state, “Almost without exception there is no immunologic requirement for annual revaccination. Immunity to viruses persists for years or for the life of the animal.” Furthermore, many holistic veterinarians feel that vaccines serve as poor substitutes for a healthy immune system, and will sometimes throw the immune system so far out of balance that their side effects outweigh their usefulness. Many believe (myself included) that it is better to build strong, natural immunity through diet, exercise, and a clean happy environment. The immune system is incredibly complex, comprised of hundreds of interactive chemicals and cells, interdependent organ structures and life-energies that combine to work in ways that boggle the minds of our greatest scientists. When a vaccine is employed, we are asking the immune system to operate in very unusual ways. A vaccine enters the body and affects the immune system by mechanisms and pathways that do not occur in nature. Parvovirus, for instance, is not transmitted through the skin (as the vaccine is with a needle) but infects the body via fecal-oral transmission. Herein lies a problem – if the immune system is not at peak performance and is asked to respond to something that does not behave like a naturally occurring pathogen, it may not be able to respond appropriately. Instead of building a defense against the vaccine, the immune system is launched into a state of confusion that may result in chronic allergies or other health problems. Maybe this is what happens in the case of vaccine-associated feline sarcoma, a progressive form of cancer that occurs in a small percentage of cats that receive feline leukemia vaccine or, less frequently, rabies or other vaccines. Although rare, vaccine-associated sarcoma has captured the attention of leading veterinary medical researchers, who have formed The National Vaccine-Associated Feline Sarcoma Task Force. Although laws throughout North America require rabies vaccination, most other vaccinations are not legally required. And while some animals are at a relatively high risk of contracting certain infectious diseases, others are not. This means many animals are receiving vaccines they simply do not need. For instance, an indoor cat that seldom meets other cats runs a very low risk of contracting a feline-carried disease. In this scenario, the cat may be better off without certain vaccinations. Ask your veterinarian and check with your local animal shelter about which risks really exist for your companion. In any case, it is a good idea to avoid multiple, “all-in-one trip” vaccinations. By administering just one vaccine at a time and allowing several weeks between each, you will greatly reduce the burden being placed upon your companion’s immune system. In turn, you may very well improve his odds against cancer.

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