Fish Oil and Cancer Prevention

Cancer is a word; it’s not a sentence.

Granted, cancer is a very scary word. Especially when it’s your doctor looking at you over the tops of her reading glasses, with your charts, records and lab results on her desk.

Walking into her office, her first words were probably: Are you all right? Followed by: Will you please sit down here.

There is no easy way to hear it. Many consider it a death sentence, just a matter of time. The thoughts running through your mind are an all too familiar litany of denial, shock, rage, fear – always fear. Recrimination and self-flagellation, and finally resignation and acceptance.

All these emotions will manifest in time. For some, it’s a fast process. Others never get past the fear.

After handling the mind-numbing number of immediate decisions regarding surgery, and post-operative treatments, dealing with the legal entanglements, there is facing the family and breaking the news to them. Invariably, they take cancer much harder than the person diagnosed with the disease. Ironically, the cancer patient is generally more concerned about their family than their own life-threatening condition.

When the surgery and post-operative treatments are finally done, there is usually a fairly long period of recovery. Depending on the type and location of the cancer, there is suddenly time for reflection and contemplation. The insights and experiences of fellow cancer survivors can be a welcome source of inspiration and motivation. Without going through exhaustive detail of the content of these meetings, it is almost a foregone conclusion that there is an occasionally contentious, often informative, and always enlightening discussion of the adoption of a cancer-preventive lifestyle.

One of the often-discussed subjects is preemptive preventive diets, supplements, and similar regimens to forestall the recurrence of the cancer. The elimination of an existing cancer is particularly problematic, prevention of cancer before it manifests itself is somewhat easier. In most cases, resolving the issue of encouraging remission is identical in practice as prevention of contracting the disease itself.

Consider the specific and particular case of the use of omega-3 fatty acids – also called alpha-linolenic acid with the specific acids identified as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – as found in certain fish oils as both a preemptive solution and aid to remission for cancer survivors.

The evidence to date is primarily epidemiological. That is, the results are based on cancer occurrence based on studies of various population groups. Most professionals in the medical community are already convinced of the proven and well-established benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention or alleviation of symptoms associated with high blood pressure and significant reductions in blood triglycerides – medically known as hypertriglyceridemia. Many are also aware there are a number of medical conditions from angina to prevention of vascular disease which may also be alleviated. Most benefits attributed to the efficacy of omega-3 fish oils are universally needing more study.

Government and highly-respected and reputable medical research institutions have an extensive list of diseases and research evidence regarding omega-3 fish oils and supplements. Research on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil supplements as a cancer preventive is on-going. The latest studies are mostly graded as unclear on a scientific basis. This is not a denial of the potential benefits; it is simply an indication that more study is needed. Clinical studies are somewhat complicated by the known benefits of omega-3 supplements having benefits on the surrounding systemic infrastructure, which may be masking or occluding any specific conclusion regarding cancer prevention or alleviation of symptoms.

This is not to imply that clinical studies have not been conducted which show positive results. However, the sample sizes were necessarily limited – either by financial constraints or a lack of a large test base having the particular kind and type of cancer to meet the requisite qualifications for inclusion in the sample.

A promising indication of the benefits of EPA enriched enteral nutrition (EN) in the treatment of cancer patients – as found in omega-3 fish oil supplements – was reported in the Annals of Surgery in March 2009. This particular double-blind study focused on the perioperative alleviation of immuno-inflammatory response to esophagectomy, and on postoperative complications. The conclusion was, in part, that EPA supplemented early EN is associated with preservation of lean body mass post esophagectomy compared with a standard EN.

This research came on the heels of a test conducted at Norwich, UK, regarding the effect of n-3 [omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA] polyunsaturated fatty acids on Barrett’s epithelium in the human lower esophagus as reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

While research is still continuing, that does not preclude using the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids to offset the less-beneficial omega-6 fatty acids. While both are necessary, the omega-3 appears to be far less pro-inflammatory than the omega-6 acids.

Of note, there is a large government-sponsored – the National Cancer Institute, with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute along with other federal agencies – funding the $20 million study of the cancer-preventive properties of omega-3 fish oil and Vitamin D in a controlled experiment using healthy subjects, with a 25% proportion of black patients – one of the first and largest nutritional studies specifically targeting a known high-risk racial population. This study is planned to take five years and involve 20,000 test subjects taking one nutrient supplement or the other, or both, or neither. The test was announced in June 2009.

This test may set to rest some of the recent reports which simply pointed out the testing to date was inadequate and inconclusive, yet the headlines in the media leave the impression that unclear results are the same as negative results, which is patently not the case. As with any other purchasing decision, due diligence and careful research, and careful determination of the validity of the reports based on unbiased criteria is a fundamental first step in the process.

There are significant advantages of using a supplement source – such as an oil or pill – than using a totally organic, or natural source; such as dark-fleshed fish, established and known to contain high levels of omega-3 acids. Some considerations worthy of note are that the manufactured supplements are far less likely to contain contaminates that are detrimental to good health, specifically chemicals and elements known to be dangerous, such as mercury or other heavy metals and dioxin. Since these chemicals bind to the fish and not the fatty acid itself, supplements are much safer.

Another consideration is metered dosage. It’s similar to the old laxative commercial that featured the woman inquiring about prunes: Are three enough? Are six too many? Supplements are precisely measured so you can be sure you’re getting your recommended daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids.

Also, there is a lack of the odor associated with gamey fish when using a supplement. A lot of people are put off of the idea of eating strong fish high in omega-3 fatty acids because of the taste. In a very small percentage of cases – some sources cite a figure of 10% – there may be some gastronomic gas, also known as belching, until the body acclimates itself to digesting larger doses of fish oils. If you’re using a good supplement and take the pills around the time you eat dinner, you shouldn’t have any issues.

Then there is the matter of cost to consider. A can of sardines is expensive considering the efficiency in returning your investment in usable omega-3 acids. A supplement pill is generally less than 20% of the cost of a natural food source. Further, most people simply do not want to eat fish every day, especially when the alternative is just adding another pill to your daily medication and nutrient regimen. There is also the impact on your caloric intake. Typically, a supplement has less than 30% of the calories of an equivalent serving of fish.

Of note, fish oils are not homogenous. They contain a number of different varieties of omega-3 acids in addition to the EPA and DHA chains. This is usually encountered in supplements derived from natural sources of fish, as opposed to synthesized or over-processed omega-3 acids. When comparing fish oil supplements, make sure the one you select comes from fresh, deep sea fish.

Convenience is also another good reason to use a supplement. It is not only easier to take, it saves space in the refrigerator or pantry not having to keep a large supply of fish on hand. You can take them with you wherever you go, simply drop the bottle in your baggage with your other medicines.

Procurement and supply of the omega-3 supplements can be problematic, especially in the case of postoperative survivors with mobility issues. Selection and delivery of the supplements in a timely manner and ease of billing or payment are necessary attributes to consider. The internet can be a very useful resource in that it may make it possible for patients with communication postoperative complications – or who are simply unwilling to go out in public – able to order from the convenience of their home.

As with any other medication or change in supplements, your medical provider or personal physician should be informed and aware of alteration in the intake of any substance with medical implications. This is especially true with people with a history of allergies to fish, or for pregnant women. With a heavy omega-3 intake, there may be an unforeseen interaction with prescription medications specified by your physician. That said, it is widely believed that Omega 3 supplements are beneficial for pregnant woman and are typically recommended for the pre-natal benefits found in research studies.

Cancer is a vicious, insidious disease. It is invasive, pervasive and debilitating. And that is stating it mildly. The surgery is generally the easy part. The hard parts are the perioperative and postoperative phases when you must relearn your own body and discover its new limitations. Then, just when you feel as if you’ve got a grip on reality again, comes the follow-on oncology to ensure the cancer is well and truly gone. Radiation – whether with cobalt-60 or some other radioactive isotope – wipes you out physically. Your entire life consists of sleeping, getting treatment, sleeping, eating – which may be a much more complex issue than you can imagine – sleeping, and getting up to do it all over again. This can go on for several weeks. Chemotherapy is worse. You are constantly taking high doses of expensive poisons, selected carefully to put your body at death’s door without accidentally opening it.

If there was anything that could prevent this, you’d do it: especially if you’ve been through it once or twice before. Not to belittle or denigrate the power of prayer or having a strong faith; but, there are Earthly alternatives that have proven positive effects on several of your bodies systems, notably the circulatory system, found in omega-3 fish oils. If there is a chance it can be efficacious in the prevention or retardation of the onset of cancer; or a recurrence of the disease, then it’s worth the attempt. This is especially valid in the use of a fish oil-based supplement nutrient. The cost of possible prevention – when compared with the cost of some of the chemotherapy cocktails – is minuscule. Henry de Bracton said in the 13th century: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While scientific and medical research studies may be inconclusive, they are rarely negative regarding the effectiveness of fish oil. To date, the naysayers are saying there is no positive proof of prevention or alleviation of cancer, which is a logical fallacy. The correct way to state the lack of evidential support based on a lack of compelling argumentation in favor or against the conclusion is to simply state: What is supported right now is that we just don’t know.

With an exciting new large diverse population of healthy people in a controlled, double-blind scientific medically-supervised and monitored long-term test scheduled; a statistically valid conclusion of the efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids when used in either alone or in combination with Vitamin D in the prevention of cancer will be established.

This, in conjunction with the ground-breaking research in combating squamous cell carcinomas of the esophageal tract in recently postoperative patients should lead to more rigorous tests with larger sample sizes that can establish if there is a valid link to omega-3 acids in the alleviation of the effects of an existing cancer.

There is one thing, however, that is certain: There is no current known cure for cancer. It can be treated, but not cured. There are some reports of spontaneous remission, however, virtually all of them are apocryphal and have no demonstrable or documented method of being recreated at will. Cancer can be avoided to some degree. The obvious ways to avoid getting cancer are well-documented, there is no reason to make an exhaustive list. The less obvious ways to avoid it are generally not known until it is too late for some people. Avoiding contact with toxic or carcinogenic materials is a good start. Good nutrition and exercise, drinking lots of clean pure water all help flush potentially harmful chemicals from your body.

These simple day-to-day decisions and choices, when combined with judicious and careful selection of nutrient supplements, taken in the correct doses, lead to a healthy lifestyle. In the case of fish oil supplements, there are a number of known and proven benefits associated with taking it on a regular basis. Enough that if the potential of being able to fend off cancer is possible, then that is icing on the cake. There is no need to justify taking fish oil supplements with anything more than “It’s for my heart health.” That makes sense to a lot of people who know of those benefits. If you insist you are taking it to avoid cancer, this can cause a glance askance, as that particular science has not been fully tested or proven. Judicious use of wisdom can go a long way.

If five years from now, when the NCI study results are in and analyzed, there is a firm linkage establishing fish oil supplements as an effective preventive application for certain cancers, then you can just nod and smile, having a five-year head start on the rest of the population.

Remember that cancer has several phases, all of which require treatment:
* As a preemptive preventive measure, taken prior to contracting cancer.
* As a perioperative treatment taken between the time of surgery and leaving the hospital.
* As a postoperative treatment taken in conjunction with radiological or chemotherapy.
* As a post-recovery regimen to encourage remission or regression.

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements have potential in all of these areas and ought to be given the serious and focused attention they deserve.

Much more exciting research with laboratory animal testing is clearly demonstrating a need for more rigid and controlled experimentation in the search for the cure. Fish oil is one of the favored vehicles because of its known benefits and lack of negative side effects. Some of the potentially promising results have come out in the last three years.

Cancer has been a blight on humanity for a long time. And it is tenacious and resilient disease, resisting most treatment short of total removal and eradication of any residual traces of its existence. Among one of its more malignant traits is its ability to spread by invading the lymphatic or circulatory systems. This process is known as metastasis. Fish oil has been shown in some small scale studies to inhibit metastasis in certain cancers by reducing the inflammatory effects of omega-6 fatty acids by replacement with omega-3 fatty acids.

Further on-going research is needed in tracking the effects of fish oil with w-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) demonstrated an increase in the level of the tumor suppressor protein PTEN. Another small scale study at the University of Texas, San Antonio, conducted from 2004-2006 demonstrated the cause and effect on laboratory mice, however, their conclusion is larger populations and more statistical analysis is required to prove the concept.

One thing is certain: Omega-3 fatty acids, other PUFAs, EPA, DHA, and additional beneficial ingredients present in fish oil supplements have a long track record of successful results that outweigh any contrary lack of results, and virtually no record at all of any detrimental results when taken in reasonable doses, even in long-term treatment programs.

There is absolutely no compelling evidence in existence that even hints that fish oil is contraindicated, other than possible allergic sensitivity. In a nutshell, there isn’t any reason not to take fish oil supplements on a daily basis for the rest of your life.

Instead of facing a sentence, consider cancer as simply another word.