Knowing Your Risks To Cancer Development – The Functional Medicine Testing Approach

Cancer, a disease which spreads fear and dread amongst anyone who’s diagnosed with it has actually been around for a very long time. However it is in the relative short period of the last hundred years that the disease has shot up in both prevalence and fatality.

Conventional approaches to screening using Ultrasounds, MRI, mammograms, CA blood markers have done much to pinpoint the diagnosis at a specific stage of the cancer, but still too many are diagnosed at late stage 3 or 4.

In functional medicine we aim to go much further upstream to identify the early imbalances or disruptions occurring at a cellular level, which can determine specific interventions at stabilizing cellular function and optimizing metabolism.

the functional medicine approach can identify cancer markers earlier

Let’s take a look at these markers closer:


We know that hormonal imbalances play a key role in cancer development and prognosis. These hormones include:

  • Insulin
  • Cortisol/DHEA
  • Estrogen
  • Progesterone
  • Testosterone
  • Thyroid

There is a strong connection between insulin resistance, diabetes and cancer1 and the longer someone is diabetic the greater the risk of developing the disease. So keeping insulin below 6 uIU/mL, is important to manage.

Excessive cortisol and diminished DHEA levels have also been linked to cancer development. Prolonged stress2 has been shown to compromise DNA repair mechanisms and thus increase risk to abnormal cell development. Heightened cortisol also leads to lower NK cell (Natural killer cell) activity, which means lowered immunity. Estrogen and estrogen metabolites, namely 16-hydrox-estrone, have been linked to cancers of the breast and uterus3.

Higher levels of these hormones stimulate growth of cells with estrogen receptors, those include breast and uterine cells. So keeping your estrogen levels balanced with progesterone and within range is helpful.


Nutrient deficiencies are all too common in today’s environment. With intensive farming practices in nutrient deficient soils, and prevalence of highly processed foods in our diets, means we’re all too often missing key nutrients which support our immune system.

Measuring key nutrients like vitamins A, C, D3, and minerals Zinc, iodine, iron, selenium and anti-oxidants like glutathione can help to understand what repletion is needed to keep our immune system in optimal surveillance mode.4,5,6 Customising your supplemental regime is key to supporting a healthy balanced diet.

Heavy Metals Toxicity

The biggest change in the last hundred years has been the pollution of our environment. The soils, waterways and air have become laden with toxic heavy metals and petro-chemical based compounds. These toxins cause cellular disruption and increased oxidation and inflammation, all hallmarks to increased cancer development.7,8,9

Under The Institute of Functional Medicine recommendations, we conduct a chelation challenge urine test for heavy metals to determine the stored levels of heavy metals in tissues like the fat and bone. For environmental pollutants, a fasting urine sample is sufficient.

If toxicity is identified, a tailored detoxification protocol is recommended either by chelation therapy or supplements depending on the time and cost restraints of the patient.

Gut Micro-Biome

There are more bacterial cultures in our guts compared to our human cells, making humans officially a super-organism. Our symbiotic relationship with bacteria dates back to the dawn of the human species. We have up until recently consumed a variety of fermented foods which help our gut microbiomes stay healthy. But our slip into consuming less fermented foods and more processed fast foods disrupts this delicate balance.

Studies have shown that the gut microbiota directly influence our immune system response, most studied being the lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species10.

Learning to identify these imbalances is best done with a comprehensive digestive stool analysis with a specialist laboratory. The analysis can identify individual species which are both symbiotic and pathogenic to our bodies.

How Often Should We Get Tested?

In terms of frequency, these tests are best conducted every 12 months after the age of 40 to ensure optimal levels of health are achieved. Conventional medical screening should also be carried out investigating your general health status.


  1. Orgel E, Mittelman SD. The links between insulin resistance, diabetes, and cancer. Curr Diab Rep. 2013;13(2):213-222.
  2. Ronald Glaser and Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, Stress-induced immune dysfunction: implications for health, Nature Reviews; Volume 5, March 2005; 243
  3. Endogenous Hormones and Breast Cancer Collaborative Group. Sex hormones and risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women: a collaborative reanalysis of individual participant data from seven prospective studies. Lancet Oncol. 14(10):1009-19, 2013.
  4. Garland CF, Garland FC, Gorham ED, et al. The role of vitamin D in cancer prevention. Am J Public Health. 2006;96(2):252-261.
  5. Bushue N, Wan YJ. Retinoid pathway and cancer therapeutics. Adv Drug Deliv Rev. 2010;62(13):1285-1298
  6. Dhawan DK, Chadha VD. Zinc: a promising agent in dietary chemoprevention of cancer. Indian J Med Res. 2010;132(6):676-682.
  7. White AJ, O’Brien KM, Niehoff NM, Carroll R, Sandler DP. Metallic Air Pollutants and Breast Cancer Risk in a Nationwide Cohort Study. Epidemiology. 2019;30(1):20-28.
  8. Rousseau MC, Parent ME, Nadon L, Latreille B, Siemiatycki J. Occupational exposure to lead compounds and risk of cancer among men: a population-based case-control study. Am J Epidemiol. 2007;166(9):1005-1014.
  9. Hartwig A. Cadmium and cancer. Met Ions Life Sci. 2013;11:491-507. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-5179-8_15
  10. Vivarelli S, Salemi R, Candido S, et al. Gut Microbiota and Cancer: From Pathogenesis to Therapy. Cancers (Basel). 2019;11(1):38. Published 2019 Jan 3. doi:10.3390/cancers11010038

Written by Miles Price, Functional Medicine Practitioner and Clinical Nutritionist

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