CAN EXCESS IRON LEAD TO CANCER?
From The Cancer Chronicles #32-#33
© June 1996 by Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.
[I was astonished to see many of these same points made on the ABC Evenings News in August, 1996,
including the recommendation that men and postmenopasual women give blood regularly. --RWM]
Iron is essential for life. But this fact obscures other evidence which demonstrates that one can overload on iron and that this could cause serious harm. In the words of one author, iron is truly a "double-edged sword."
This may have special relevance to cancer. Scientists at Sloan-Kettering Institute have published over a dozen papers linking excess iron to lowered immunity and to cancer. "Iron impairs several T-cell functions" SKI scientists wrote recently (Arosa, FA, et al., Cell Immunol 1995;161:138-42). T-cells are essential for Þghting cancer.
Iron is routinely deposited and stored in the liver, and it is there that we might seek for Þrst signs of damage. While elevated liver enzymes and cirrhosis can be due to many causes, such as alcoholism, they also can be due to the presence of excess iron. It has been shown that people with iron-caused cirrhosis are at a 200 times greater risk of developing primary liver cancer than those whose livers are normal (Adams, PC, et al. Adv Intern Med 1989;34:111; also, Niederau, C., et al. New Engl J Med 1985;313:1256).
Other studies have shown a link between iron overload and a wide variety of cancers such as colorectal (Nelson, RL, et al. Anticancer Res 1989;9:1477), esophagus and bladder (Stevens, RG, et al. New Engl J Med 1988;319:1047), lung, pancreas, prostate, ovary, endometrium, skin, urinary organs, and nervous system e.g., neuroblastoma (Knekt, P, et al. Int J Cancer 1994;56:379; Stevens, RG, et al. Int J Cancer 1994;56:364).
In one 1976 study it was shown that three times as much iron could be extracted from malignant breast tissue as from benign tissue (Santoliquido, PM, et al. Surg Gyn Obstet 1976;142:65). Elevated iron storage was found in 88 percent of the breast cancer patients studied.
Among children with acute lymphocytic leukemia, survival times for those with the lowest levels of stored iron were longer than for those with increased stores of iron (Potaznik, D. Amer J Ped Hemat/Oncol 1987;9:350).
In Sweden in 1964, authorities doubled the iron fortiÞcation of flour and in 1970 increased it further. This led to the anticipated decrease in iron-deÞciency
anemia in young women, but the incidence of liver, lung, and breast cancer all increased substantially within this same group.
Canadian author Adeena Robinson herself suffered from an iron-related syndrome called hemochromatosis. All her doctors failed to discover this until a sympathetic physician named Paul Cutler, MD diagnosed the problem. In his preface to her excellent 1995 booklet, Iron: A Double-Edged Sword, Cutler writes, "Doctors are being criticized from within and outside the profession for missing the diagnosis of hemochromatosis, which is actually the most common genetic disorder there is."
In Ms. Robinson's case, Dr. Cutler used an innovative diagnostic test called the "deferoxamine challenge." Essentially, he gave her an injection of deferoxamine, a chelating agent that attaches to and removes iron from the body. He then measured her urine for the amount of iron excreted. From this, he was able to calculate
Ms. Robinson's total iron level more accurately than he could have possibly done with more standard blood tests.
So, what is the treatment for excess iron? One approach is to administer deferoxamine therapeutically to rid the body of its excess iron. Another is phlebotomy. Simply put, this means bleeding the patient, one of the oldest medical procedures in existence. Periodically removing some blood lowers the body stores of iron. This can be done either as a medical procedure by doctors willing to put up with the smirks of colleagues or by occasionally donating blood at the local Red Cross (which is a good idea for a variety of reasons).
For readers interested in knowing if they have excess iron (a good possibility as one ages), Ms. Robinson suggests a special blood test; not just the standard test for serum iron but a measure of "serum ferritin."
"The serum ferritin test," Robinson writes, "is more likely than the serum iron test to reflect the correct iron status of an individual and, as a general rule, is a fairly good measure of the amount of iron stored in the tissues and the organs."
Ironically, doctors will sometimes only order this test if you tell them that you suspect you have an iron deÞciency (which is an "orthodox" diagnosis), rather than iron overload (an "unconventional" diagnosis). How does one avoid excess iron? Robinson reasonably suggests that concerned readers:
Avoid iron tablets or injections unless absolutely
necessary for well-established medical reasons.
Eliminate foods fortiÞed with iron.
Separate intake of vitamin C from food by at least one hour, since vitamin C enhances iron uptake from food.
Limit alcohol intake and don¹t smoke.
Avoid iron cookware. Use stainless steel, glass, etc.
Consume red meat sparingly.
Eat deepwater Þsh or take Þsh oil supplements.
Engage in a reasonable amount of exercise.
If you are in good health, donate blood regularly.
"A Double Edged Sword" is a 80-page booklet, with 200 references. It is well-written and sensible in tone. One can send check or money order to Informasearch, PO Box 398, Station "K" Toronto, Ontario M4P 2G7, Canada Price: $10.00 + $3.00 s/h in US and Canada.
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