Just a decade ago, advanced melanoma was considered a death sentence by modern medicine. Those specializing in the field were primarily focused on hospice and palliative care for their patients. Median survival for patients undergoing standard treatment was less than a year.
But now, doctors are calling improvements in advanced melanoma treatment one of the biggest accomplishments in modern medicine. And they’re doing it without chemotherapy.
An article published last week by Medscape Oncology has highlighted the massive strides doctors have taken when it comes to melanoma. These advances, they say, are largely due to new understanding of the immune system. Working with our body’s natural defense systems instead of against them has literally given new life to cancer patients.
While melanoma only accounts for about 1% of all skin cancers, it is by far the most deadly. When caught early enough, melanoma can be easy to treat and relatively harmless. But when undiagnosed, this cancer can become extremely aggressive, leaving behind a staggering mortality rate. Doctors have been confounded for decades on how to treat it – turning to toxic chemotherapy with terrible results – but there are new breakthroughs on the horizon.
What is Melanoma?
Melanoma is an especially tricky skin cancer. While it’s most commonly found in areas that receive heavy sun exposure, they can also be found on the soles of your feet, palms of your hands, fingernail beds, eyes, and even your internal organs. Remember that most sunscreens can actually increase your risk of cancer, so it’s important to be smart about your sun exposure and stick to natural sunscreens when necessary.
Natural Treatment for Melanoma
In general, natural remedies are your best bet against skin cancer. Phenolic compounds in plants contain anti-carcinogenic potential. Flavonols, lignins, stilbenes, and phenolic acids are synthesized by the plant to protect against the sun’s rays, chemicals, pathogens, pests, and are used to repair injury. When you consume the right plants, these compounds can also protect you.
The best way to benefit from these compounds is by eating the plants directly, instead of relying on synthetic supplements. And there are plenty of anti-cancer benefits when it comes to plants. Phenolic compounds can:
- Scavenge free radicals and inhibit toxic compounds which promote genetic damage and mutations.
- Prevent inflammation and controls natural homeostatic mechanisms for healthy hormone function.
- Assist in detoxification pathways for proper vitamin D absorption and removal of toxins.
- Protect skin integrity and prevent aging.
According to Dr. David Jockers, some of the plant-based compounds to look for in the fight against skin cancer:
- Caffeic Acid: Found in spinach leaves, olive oil, apples, coffee, wine, and cabbage
- Tannins: Contained in a variety of fruits and vegetables, nuts, coffee, and tea
- Resveratrol: This type of stilbene is found in grapes, berries, and peanuts. Resveratrol helps to inhibit the over-production of melanin
- Anthocyanins: Eat blackberries, bilberries, and honeyberries
- EGCG: Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) has an anti-proliferative effect on cancer cells. Green tea is a rich source of this cancer fighting compound
- Quercetin: Protects against genetic alterations leading to irreversible carcinogenesis. Eating whole apples, including their skin, helps protect against harmful UV damage
- Ursolic Acid: Holy basil tea contains ursolic acid which shuts down cancer growth and down-regulates the genes associated with cancer growth
- Luteolin: A major anticancer flavonoid, luteolin is found in medicinal herbs like chrysanthemum flowers, as well as in fruits and vegetables including celery, parsley, broccoli, carrots, and cabbage
The most important thing you can do is perform self-exams and be aware of changes in your body. That way, you can catch melanoma before it becomes a more serious problem. Becoming familiar with your skin will go a long way in helping you identify melanoma. Although not all of these cancers present on the skin, the majority do. Experts at the Mayo Clinic recommend using the ABCDE system for monitoring moles on your skin:
- A is for asymmetrical shape. Look for moles with irregular shapes, such as two very different-looking halves.
- B is for irregular border. Look for moles with irregular, notched or scalloped borders — characteristics of melanomas.
- C is for changes in color. Look for growths that have many colors or an uneven distribution of color.
- D is for diameter. Look for new growth in a mole larger than 1/4 inch (about 6 millimeters).
- E is for evolving. Look for changes over time, such as a mole that grows in size or that changes color or shape. Moles may also evolve to develop new signs and symptoms, such as new itchiness or bleeding.
But sometimes, these tips and tricks aren’t enough. When facing a Stage 4 malignant melanoma, many doctors would have given you less than a year to live. But skin cancer is NOT a death sentence. Thanks to breakthroughs in immunology, you have treatment options that boost your immune system instead of destroying it.
Immunotherapy Cancer Treatment
Cancer immunotherapy includes a range of treatments that use your own immune system to fight this often-deadly disease. Proponents of these methods of treating cancer have been muted for decades, their research summarily dismissed as “new age” medicine. But the truth is that your body wants to fight cancer as badly as it fights stomach flu or infection. It simply has a blind spot when it comes to cancerous cells.
The most common immunotherapies in use today are called checkpoint inhibitors. T-cells are a type of white blood cell that identify and destroy damaged, infected, and cancerous cells in the body. However, they have a fatal weakness – they carry molecules inside them called immune checkpoints, which the immune system uses to shut the T-cells down when they don’t need them.
Cancer cells have the ability to activate these checkpoints, effectively stopping the T-cells in their tracks. But immunotherapies called “checkpoint inhibitors” take the proverbial brakes off of the immune system, allowing the T-cells to attack and destroy the cancer. The new research found that immunotherapy can be useful for treating a much wider array of cancers than was previously thought.
This growing movement to harness the power of the immune system is a step in the right direction. James Allison, who won the Nobel Prize last year for his research on immunotherapy, recently appeared on the podcast “Point of Discovery,” hosted by the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences. What he shared was fascinating.
He explained how skeptical the medical community was to using immunotherapy at first, believing it could never work. But his research, along with fellow Nobel Laureate Tasuku Honjo, quickly proved them wrong.
Sure enough, we injected this antibody… which blocks the breaks, and we saw tumors just melt away. In almost every tumor that we did… we found almost no tumors we couldn’t cure in mice.”
He described a patient with advanced melanoma who was about to transition to hospice care. After her first immunotherapy treatment, her tumors “vanished.” 18 years later, she is still healthy. Perhaps the most famous patient to benefit from immunotherapy is former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
After his skin cancer metastasized to his brain and liver, the outlook was dire. Patients with this type of cancer generally survive less than a year. But Mr. Carter is healthy and completely cancer-free nearly four years later, a powerful endorsement for the immune system.
Immunotherapy is considered the “living drug.” Its building blocks are T-cells, which are collected from the blood of the patient. These cells are then altered to create “special receptors” referred to as chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). These CARs are a type of protein that enables the T-cells to attack the antigen – the protein found in cancer cells.
These engineered T-cells are cultured in the lab and allowed to grow to billions in number. Then the CAR T-cells are injected into the patient, where, if everything goes well, the T-cells will reproduce, seek out cancer cell antigens, and destroy them.
Today, doctors are using these “living drugs” to offer new hope to advanced melanoma patients – and making chemotherapy a thing of the past.
Promising Advances in Melanoma Treatment
For years, chemotherapy was the standard of care for patients with advanced melanoma. Unfortunately, the toxic chemical thrashed patient’s immune systems and did virtually nothing to prolong their lives, while making them susceptible to more disease, including new cancers. Now, doctors say chemotherapy for melanoma patients is a thing of the past.
Paul B. Chapman, MD, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City has been treating melanoma patients since the 1980s. He describes the change in patient care as “unheard of,” and says that where they once had little hope to offer patients, they now have options through immunotherapy research.
In those days, we had a few treatments for melanoma, and sometimes they worked and mostly they didn’t,” he said. “Once in a while we had a patient who had a clear benefit, and occasional cures, but they were rare.”
He says that chemotherapy is rarely considered for patients now.
It’s just not used that often anymore, and the more junior doctors don’t even know the doses.”
The two biggest breakthroughs in treatment that moves away from chemo were the Human Genome Project and advances in immunotherapy. The Human Genome Project mapped out and enhanced the understanding of human genes and laid out the foundation for deciphering the pathogenesis of cancer. The development of immunotherapies – especially checkpoint inhibitors – changed the game by unlocking the body’s full potential to combat diseases like cancer.
In fact, advances in immunotherapy are a big part of the reason that Dr. Chapman to his field. “There was really a robust interest in it and that’s why I was directed to melanoma, as it was the only area where immunotherapy was really being investigated,” he said. “Melanoma doctors were the only ones really studying it and there was a sense that melanoma might be more responsive to immunotherapy.”
Not only is immunotherapy promising for melanoma patients, but it offers a significantly better quality of life as well. Chemotherapy and radiation are absolutely brutal for those receiving them. Chemotherapy drugs were originally derived from the mustard gas used in the First World War. Rather than supporting the immune system, chemotherapy destroys it, leaving patients susceptible to infections, chronic pain and nausea, and even secondary cancers!
Chemotherapy is a “scorched earth” approach to defeating cancer; doctors are simply gambling that your body can survive longer than the cancer. Sadly, this is often not the case. Many cancer patients die as a result of the treatments, rather than the disease itself. But immunotherapy alone is not the answer.
Supporting our immune systems and working daily to avoid and remove toxins is absolutely essential to preventing and beating cancer. If you are using the principles of natural health to create a vibrant, thriving life for you and for your family, then you know that both gut health and a strong immune system are key. Once you understand the relationship between the two, then achieving perfect health and preventing disease can be easy!
The immune system is a huge network of cells and organisms that spans throughout the body. It isn’t relegated to just one area of the body. However, science now knows that roughly 80% of our body’s total immune system cells reside in the upper gastrointestinal tract. When you do good things for your gut, you are also helping your immune system in a big way.
There are certainly pros and cons to immunotherapy, and the field is only just beginning to receive the research and attention that it deserves. What’s most important to remember that cancer – even late-stage melanoma – is NOT a death sentence! You have a choice when it comes to your treatment, and you don’t have to settle for toxic treatments that make doctors richer while destroying the immune system.
Looking for more tips for preventing melanoma naturally? Go here!