How Your Environment Affects Cancer Treatment

— BY Condition Information | Reading Time: 2 min

Woman in an interview with a Doctor

Your home deserves to be your safe space throughout oncology treatment. But at a time when the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer has identified more than 28 known environmental carcinogens across the ten provinces, it’s important to understand how your normal surroundings play a role in your cancer care. Could your home have a negative impact on your health?

While it’s unlikely that your home itself poses a risk to your cancer treatment, the sad reality is that you are exposed to thousands of different chemicals each day, from your air quality to your food supply. Many of these substances, called carcinogens, are linked to cancer development and cancer progression. Let’s take a look at how your normal environment can affect your treatment.

Your Environment, Your Health, and You

The word carcinogen can be scary, especially for those who are undergoing cancer treatment. When we discuss carcinogens and your environment, we are referring to the variety of substances and other adverse chemicals added to your food and water supply via agricultural processes and industrial manufacturing. Many of these substances can have adverse effects on your health.

When you are repeatedly exposed to certain chemicals, such as carcinogens, they can accumulate in your body over time. The more these toxic substances accumulate, the more of a risk they pose for cancer development and progression. Even worse, several of these exposures can also affect your quality of life while receiving cancer care. So, what could be hiding in your environment?

Graphic of a notebook and four different figures

Pesticides in Food and Water Supplies

Pesticides are a group of chemicals that include fungicides to control the growth of fungi and spores; herbicides for weed control; rodenticides for rodent control; and fumigants and insecticides to control the spread of insects. Pesticides can be found on the surface of fruits and vegetables as well as in certain localized water supplies due to run-off from nearby agriculture.

Research demonstrates a link between pesticide exposure and certain cancers, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and kidney, lung, and prostate cancers. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, many of the pesticides that are classified as carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) are no longer used in Canada.

Arsenic in Municipal and Private Well Water

Arsenic is a chemical element that is naturally found in rocks and soil. However, many Canadians are surprised to learn they may consume arsenic in small amounts from their municipal drinking water or private well water. Natural sources, like nearby soil, as well as certain types of mining and smelting, can cause arsenic to enter local water supplies.

These levels are typically very low, but in territories that depend partially (like Alberta) or completely (like Prince Edward Island) on groundwater, they may be slightly elevated. Drinking water that is contaminated with a high level of arsenic over a long period of time has been shown to heighten the risk of bladder and lung cancer.

Note: Skin contact with arsenic has not been linked to cancer risk; therefore, contaminated water is safe to bathe in.

Outdoor Air Pollution and Other Particles

Air pollution refers to a combination of various chemicals, substances, and other particles in the air that are present in enough quantities to damage the environment — or the health and comfort of the humans nearby. For those undergoing cancer treatment, air pollution can prove to be especially bothersome or stressful on the body.

Generally speaking, the IARC classifies types of air pollutants based on their known association with cancer. For instance, gasoline engine exhaust, diesel engine exhaust, and radon are all examples of outdoor air pollution that are classified as carcinogens. Likewise, tobacco smoke is a common air pollutant that is a proven carcinogen.

a woman leaning back on a couch

Environmental Assessments in Oncology Care

Just because carcinogens and other chemicals exist in the general environment does not mean they are present in your environment. That’s why we conduct a detailed environmental assessment with every patient here at Neurvana Naturopathic Medicine. For oncology patients, this assessment helps to understand the environmental exposures that may be present throughout cancer care.

With the results of an environmental assessment, we can identify what substances could be negatively contributing to your health, to your disease, and to your quality of life during treatment. These results allow us to make very specific recommendations for each patient on how to actually alleviate some of those environmental exposures. Here are the four primary areas we assess.

1. Water Quality

We often perform an assessment to understand what types of exposures you may have through your water systems, and then recommend changes to water filtration units to ensure your water is clean and healthy. If you have a private well, the ministry of health or ministry of environment in your province or territory can also help you test levels of arsenic and other substances.

2. Air Quality

The second environmental component we assess is air quality in the home. This part of the environmental assessment is particularly important for those with respiratory cancers and lung cancers. While it’s difficult to control outdoor air quality during cancer treatment, we can offer several solutions to filter indoor air quality, such as portable air cleaners or air purifiers.

An air filter

3. Food Quality

The third component we assess is food. More specially, we will look at food quality, as nutrition plays a large role in cancer care. If we find gaps in your nutritional care, we will work together to access healthy sourced foods. We will also go over how to shop for healthier food options as well as how to avoid chemical additives and other unnecessary chemicals in your diet.

4. Sleep Quality

Last but certainly not least, we will review your sleep quality, better known as your sleep hygiene. Sleep is an integral part of recovery, especially because your body must rest between treatments. Depending on the results of your assessment, we will look at how we can design solutions for your bedroom to help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and maintain a higher quality of sleep.

How to Gauge the Impact of Your Environment

So, how do you know if your environment is having a potentially negative impact on your health? Well, number one is working with a regulated healthcare practitioner, like myself, who has experience in the assessment of these issues! In today’s internet age, it’s all too common for people to self-diagnose (or over-diagnose) themselves to believe they have a certain exposure. 

The ability to meet with someone with the expertise to understand all the different environmental exposures and help you work through that is beyond helpful. Together, we can test those exposures and look to see if they are present in your system. By working with a professional, you can be accurate and precise with your treatment, which is paramount for optimal cancer care.

A doctor showing a bone scan to a patient

Step 1: Identify Potential Toxic Exposures

First, I will issue an environmental assessment to recognize if there are toxic exposures present in your environment. I will identify these exposures and help you to understand what the source may be. From here, we can take more actionable steps to not only treat your specific type of cancer but also the specific toxins found within your normal environment.

Step 2: Remove and Reduce Potential Toxicity

One of the most important things to me in integrative cancer care is the patient’s quality of life. Once I learn what toxic exposures could be present in your environment, we will take steps to mitigate that exposure and prevent it from happening again. These steps can help in the fight to enter remission and, in the long term, remain healthily in remission.

Take control of your environment.

Your environment plays a major role in cancer care. Visit our Calgary naturopathic clinic for help understanding how your environment could be impacting your cancer journey.