Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Brief Guide to Colorectal Cancer

Colon cancer is primarily understood as cancer of the large intestine, the lower part of your digestive system. Colon cancer should not be confused with rectal cancer—cancer of the last several inches of the colon. Both of these cancers are often grouped together and known widely as colorectal cancers, affecting both men and women. Colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers in North America, and according to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 4.8% of men and women will be diagnosed with either colon or rectum cancer at some point during their lifetime. For this reason, it is essential to educate oneself on the signs and symptoms of these life-threatening illnesses.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer include rectal bleeding, change in bowel habit, unexplained weight loss, cramping or bloating, blood in the stool (usually unable to be seen by the naked eye), weakness or fatigue, and occasionally anemia. While it is not always clear what causes colorectal cancer, we do know that it is the abnormal growth of damaged cells that allow the cancer to progress, oftentimes going on to alter other organ systems. So far, doctors can agree that inherited gene mutations and the presence of precancerous growths (polyps) in the colon and rectum are typically the primary risk factors in the development of colorectal cancer. That being said, there are other, secondary risk factors associated with colorectal cancer. Some of these include:

  • A low-fiber, high-fat diet
  • Red meat consumption
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Inflammatory intestinal conditions (e.g., Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Consumption of nicotine and alcohol
  • Some radiation therapies

Colon cancer begins with the development of small, benign tumors (also known as adenomatous polyps) in the colon. This kind of abnormal cell growth can commonly be found in the elderly, and most of these tumors maintain the potential to become cancerous over time. During the early stages of colon cancer, the individual may not experience any symptoms. This is why it is suggested that those over the age of 50 should get regular screenings to better detect any tumors before they become cancerous. Colon cancer affects men more than women, and more individuals of African descent than any other race. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, ulcerative bowel disease, and/or Gardner’s syndrome, it is highly recommended that you begin your screenings before age 50.

Self Help

A high-fat diet promotes the overproduction of bile acid in the colon, damaging the surrounding tissues and sometimes causing abnormal cell growth. Alternately, heavy drinking can suppress the immune system, putting the body at less of an advantage to combat these developing cancer cells. For these reasons and more, it is imperative to maintain a healthy, high-fiber diet and to decrease your alcohol consumption to a minimum. Diets high in fish have also been shown to help prevent polyps and, ultimately, colorectal cancer.

Aside from diet, there are a variety of alternative treatments that may help one cope with a diagnosis of colorectal cancer. Some of these include:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Regular exercise
  • Art or music therapy
  • Colonics
  • Magnet therapy
  • Group therapy and/or cancer support groups

It should be noted that none of these treatments have been proven to cure colorectal cancer, and anyone who is clinically diagnosed should be under the close supervision of a medical doctor for any and all stages of their cancer.

Western Treatments

Much of the literature regarding colon and rectal cancer group these two conditions into one category, as they share many of the same features in common. Treatment for these conditions differ slightly with regard to the type of surgery needed to eradicate the cancerous cells.

Methods for early detection of polyps and tumors include sigmoidoscopy, rectal exam, and stool testing. For a more definitive answer, doctors can rely on X-rays, biopsies, and/or endoscopies. Once detected, the most common treatment option is surgery to remove the affected area, occasionally combined with chemotherapy or radiation therapy, depending on the stage of the cancer (this includes Stages I to IV). Follow up exams to check for recurrence is ordinarily the routine procedure for all patients. For the most severe cases, removal of the colon may be the best treatment option.

A Case Study in TCM Diagnosis

An African American woman in her late 60s had recently had her colon removed due to cancer, and she had been wearing a colostomy bag ever since. Her primary symptoms included fatigue and weakness, as well as the persistent feeling of being cold. Traditional Chinese diagnosis revealed that her pulse was sinking and slow, and her tongue pale and dry. Her treatment began with the intention of invigorating blood circulation in order to A) help her body cope better during the aftermath of her surgery, and B) support Qi and blood due to her overall weakened state.

The patient was prescribed two herbal mixtures, the first containing ailanthus cortex, baked astragalus root, white ginseng root, white atractylodes rhizome, red atractylodes rhizome, poria sclerotium, and dioscorea root. The second herbal mixture included ginseng root, poria sclerotium, white atractylodes rhizome, zizyphus seed, astragalus root, and tang kuei root. Initially, the patient ingested the herbs in tea form, eventually switching to tablet form after approximately three weeks. By end of the first two months, the patient reported that she was experiencing less digestive distress and less fatigue.

Once again, it should be noted that anyone who is clinically diagnosed with colorectal cancer should be under the close supervision of a medical doctor for any and all stages of their cancer.

Reflux Esophagitis—Too Much of a GERD Thing

There are various types of esophagitis, and they are organized categorically by the underlying conditions that cause it. Esophagitis can be drug induced, caused by an allergic reaction, or even result from an infection. The topic of today’s blog, however, is reflux esophagitis. There is a structure called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) that acts as a valve, keeping stomach contents out of the esophagus. Normally, this structure is relaxed only during swallowing. If the LES opens spontaneously, or if the LES cannot close properly, the acidic contents of the stomach find their way back into the esophagus, causing heartburn and “acid reflux” (also known as gastroesophageal reflux). When the acidic contents of the stomach do this repeatedly, inflammation can occur. If this backflow of stomach acid becomes a recurring problem, one may develop a condition known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Complications of this disease include tissue damage due to chronic inflammation in the esophagus.

Those who suffer from reflux esophagitis report experiencing a sour taste in the mouth and a burning pain in the upper abdomen and mid-chest. Other signs and symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty or painful swallowing
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Food becoming lodged in the esophagus (also known as food impaction)
  • Decreased appetite

If symptoms last for more than a few days without improvement, or if pain in the chest lasts more than a few minutes, immediate medical attention may need to be sought. You may also want to consider informing your doctor if your symptoms are severe enough to inhibit eating, or if your symptoms are accompanied by other, less easily explained symptoms (e.g., flu-like symptoms or shortness of breath).

There are certain risk factors that can make one more susceptible to developing reflux esophagitis and/or GERD. These factors include obesity, pregnancy, hiatal hernia, and smoking tobacco. Other risk factors include eating too quickly, eating fatty foods, eating acidic foods, and alcohol consumption. If left untreated, esophagitis can lead to structural changes of the esophagus. These structural changes, in turn, can lead to alterations in cell structure and/or function—a major risk factor for the development of esophageal cancer.

Self Help

For those who experience recurring bouts of acid reflux and heartburn, most can find relief by making a few simple lifestyle changes. Some of these changes include:

  • Pace yourself while eating
  • Elevate your head while sleeping
  • Avoid foods that are especially acidic and/or high in fat content
  • Stop smoking
  • Reduce your alcohol consumption
  • Lose weight
  • Avoid clothes that are too tight, as they can sometimes inhibit proper circulation
  • Avoid late night snacking

Some other ingestible food and drink to consider avoiding are chocolate, citrus juices, and coffee, as all of these are particularly high in acid content.

Western Treatments

Most people who suffer from reflux esophagitis can manage their symptoms on their own. However, when the symptoms persist, medical attention may need to be sought. Your doctor can determine whether you have reflux esophagitis by both gauging your symptoms and performing X-rays and/or an endoscopy. Traditional Western treatment for reflux esophagitis may include prescribing acid-blocking drugs such as proton pump inhibitors. Alternately, your doctor may recommend a surgical procedure called fundoplication. This procedure is only intended for the most severe cases or cases that are caused by a hiatal hernia, and the purpose of the surgery is to help strengthen the LES. As always, there are a slew of potential side effects and complications involved with both of these treatments.

A Case Study in TCM Diagnosis

A 42-year-old woman was suffering from chronic abdominal bloating, heartburn, and excessive belching. She was approximately 100 pounds overweight, admitting to indulging in regular episodes of binge eating. For her, food was used to help her cope with the stresses of everyday life—even going so far as to admit that she would eat the way “an alcoholic drinks.” Traditional Chinese diagnosis found that her pulse was sinking and wiry, and that her tongue was red with a yellow coating. It was explained that any herbal remedy on its own, without the accompanying changes in diet and exercise, would have minimal effect. Once the patient was fully briefed, she was prescribed an herbal mixture containing poria sclerotium, coix seed, barley shen qu, magnolia bark, angelica root, and some other choice herbs. It was also recommended that she include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into her diet. Radical dieting was discouraged, as these crash diets can make one feel deprived and therefore more likely to binge. Herbal teas were recommended in place of soda and other carbonated beverages.

After two weeks the patient reported experiencing less heartburn less often, but the bloating and belching were still present. An additional herbal formula containing curcuma tuber, corydalis rhizome, taraxacum herb, and melia fruit was prescribed in order to address food stagnation. While the patient struggled with adhering to her new diet and exercise plan, she did report some improvement. She was reminded that for best results, she was encouraged to stick to her recommended dietary and lifestyle changes.