As I noted last week, more Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other forms of cancer combined. Even though incidence rates continue to climb, skin cancer remains one of the more survivable forms of cancer. Early detection is key.
Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer. It is estimated that more than 96,000 new cases of melanoma can be expected in 2019, taking the lives of more than 7,000 Americans. Experts believe the increased incidence is due to a combination of high levels of unprotected skin exposure, the use of tanning beds (despite warnings) and advanced-stage detection.
Skin cancer, when it is caught early, is treatable. It is recommended that people regularly check their skin for any new moles or growths and any existing growths that begin to grow or change significantly in any other way. Keep in mind the A, B, C, D and E of melanoma: asymmetry, border irregularity, color variation, diameter and evolution (change).
One thing that makes melanoma so deadly is that, unlike other cancers, it does not respond well to chemotherapy or radiation therapy. The important news is that, for the first time, the survival rate is improving due to advances in treatment involving immunotherapy. Over the past several years, immunotherapy to stimulate a patient’s immune system to attack melanoma is generating improvements in survival. There are at least 10 such new treatments developed to date.
It is also an opportune time to recognize the power of the immune system and to enhance our understanding of how it functions.
These new melanoma treatments are but one example of how immunologists are advancing medical breakthroughs while also illuminating the close connection between the immune system and mental and physical health.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times Matt Richtel recently noted, the goal is not to “boost” your immune system. Instead, the goal should be to support it. It is all about balance, he says.
Our immune system took shape roughly 480 million years ago as a system all jawed vertebrates share. The job of the immune system is to take stock, monitor, assess and judge potential threats. Says Richtel, we live in a sea of organisms. Bacteria, viruses, parasites and other life forms great and small occupy our surroundings, cover our skin and inhabit our gut. Most of them mean us no harm.
While modern life has freed us from many of the diseases that plagued humans in the past, it also puts unprecedented stress on the very system that keeps us healthy in the midst of the challenging, complex environment in which we now live. The best way to keep it in balance is through a good diet and sleep, as well as living a healthy lifestyle.
We live in a sleep-deprived society, and lack of sleep almost immediately tips your immune system into imbalance. Multiple studies have shown that people on average need around seven hours of sleep a night.
According to Mayo Clinic, chronic lack of sleep leads to premature death through diseases like cancer and heart disease. This has everything to do with the immune system. The goal is to create an environment that does not require your immune system to lose its natural balance; sleeplessness tips your immune system out of balance.
Exercise also helps keep your immune system in balance on a day-to-day basis. But once you get sick, that same exercise can steer resources away from your immune system and impede recovery.
Another way to help your body maintain a balanced immune system is to eat natural food rather than highly processed food. Your body burns through sugars and highly processed carbohydrates (such as those in white bread, white rice and prepared bakery goods) more rapidly than protein and the carbohydrates in whole grains. Natural foods present the immune system with familiar nutrients that we have evolved to recognize and benefit from, says Richtel.
Also, don’t skip meals, says Harvard University’s HEALTHbeat. It is better to evenly space your meals out so your body gets the nourishment it needs all through the day to maintain high energy.
Not only are natural foods beneficial, so is nature itself, adds Richtel. Exposure to the great outdoors and a great variety of germs can also help us stay healthy.
Research shows that when we cleanse our entire world, we not only cleanse pathogens but also lots of nonthreatening microbes that help the immune system without causing any harm to us. Richtel contends that their absence is connected to a sharp rise in food and skin allergies in industrialized countries.
Allergies, he notes, are basically the immune system creating inflammation in response to something that doesn’t really cause much of a threat.
Write to Chuck Norris (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your questions about health and fitness.