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How Fast Does Cancer Grow?

Over the years, I've found that many people don't seem to realize that the vast majority of malignancies aren't palpable and don't create symptoms for several years, and sometimes decades. This is a critical point to understand, as our choices today are unmistakeably what determine our risk for cancer and most chronic diseases in the years ahead - even thirty, forty, fifty years ahead.

When looking to understand the pace at which cancer grows and spreads, the main concept to consider is doubling time, which is the amount of time it takes for one cell to divide or for a group of cells (like a benign or malignant tumor) to double in size.

Doubling time is different for various tumours, but if you know the size of a tumor at two different points in its lifespan, you can calculate doubling time with the following online resource: Doubling Time.

To put this idea into numbers, let's say that a 1 millimeter mass is detected within lung tissue on a CT scan. If this same mass is measured to be 15 millimeters two years later, doubling time for this mass is 62 days.

Here's the take-home point: a 1 millimeter cluster of cancerous cells typically contains somewhere in the ball park of a million cells, and on average, takes about six years to get to this size. Generally, a tumor can't be detected until it reaches the 1 millimeter mark.

So to develop a mass that is likely to be problematic (say, about 5 centimeters to put a number to this example), make no mistake in understanding that this is a journey of many years.

To put it another way, a person doesn't go from being relatively healthy to having cancer suddenly appear and spread throughout his body within a few months or even a year. To have a growth that is visible to the eye or cancer that has metastasized, generally, it's scientifically sound to state that the cancerous mass began developing many years ago.

I like to share this information with clients because I find that it tends to heighten awareness of how important today's food and lifestyle choices are in determining our risk for disease in the future.

It's simple: what we do today determines our risk for disease tomorrow.

With this thought in mind, we can strive to apply the following guidelines to our daily choices to reduce risk of most chronic, degenerative conditions, including almost all types of cancer:

  1. Limit intake of refined sugar.

  2. Limit intake of unhealthy oils that are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids.

  3. Limit exposure to ionizing radiation and electromagnetic fields.

  4. Avoid use of oral contraceptives and hormone replacement drugs whenever possible.

  5. Minimize exposure to exogenous toxins like pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, dioxins, asbestos, volatile organic compounds, and polychlorinated biphenyls.

  6. Minimize or completely avoid use of recreational drugs.

  7. Optimize vitamin D status.

  8. Work at getting regular aerobic exercise and restful sleep.

  9. Strive to be emotionally balanced i.e. avoid living in a fight/flight state where sympathetic nervous system output dominates parasympathetic (rest/digest) tone.

I think it's worth noting that the concept of cancer growth happening at a predictable pace applies to all major types of chronic disease. Risk of a cerebrovascular accident (stroke) is determined by how healthy our blood vessels and blood pressure are over decades, not by a sudden transient spike in pressure. Risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is determined by all of the substances that our lungs have been exposed to since day one. And so on and so forth.

Please consider sharing this post with family and friends who are under the illusion that cancer and other chronic diseases are mostly a matter of bad luck. Certainly, there are situations where genetic predispositions and environmental circumstances are not ideal, but in most cases, we can reduce overall risk by being mindful of our daily choices.


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Great topic! I would add the following significant risk factors: Smoking and exposure to smoke from other sources; excessive insulin exposure resulting from obesity and lack of exercise; sunburn; parabens in skin preparations; nitrates and nitrites in preserved meats; acrylamides from starch foods cooked at high temperatures, like chips and donuts; urethanes in fermented foods; a family of chemicals known as amines that form when fat drips off of meat and into a fire, such as a barbecue. On the positive side, there are many foods that protect against the damage leading to cancer, as well as minimizing the proliferation of blood vessels (angiogenesis) that feed the cancer and permit very high growth rates. There is an excellent talk on this topic by Dr. William Li on entitled "Can we Eat to Starve Cancer?"

Re: your recommendation that a person get regular aerobic exercise, a recent newsletter from Yoga Journal magazine claims that yoga in itself is sufficient for an individual's exercise and fitness needs, including aerobic. I would have trouble fitting both yoga (to which I'm committed) AND aerobic exercise, e.g. on my elliptical crosstrainer, into my daily routine. Most of the yoga I do, who am an overweight 65 year old male, is not very demanding--more low-key stretching. If I had to choose, which one is more likely to keep me healthy and fit over the long term?

Here's the link:

Any thoughts?

A dime (Canadian) is 18 millimeters in diameter, so one fifth of this would be 3.6 millimeters. This is quite a lot more than 1 millimeter. Maybe what is meant is that a tumor of 1 millimeter is roughly equal to the thickness of a dime, which is 1.22 millimeters, and one at 15 millimeters roughly equal to the diameter of a dime. Still not perfect, but easier to visualize at least for me.

I am from India, and in a developing ountry like India, there is a widespread lack of personal hygiene. This has nothing to do with poverty or so, as even people who are highly paid are very low in hygiene. And i belive that this is one of the causes of cancer in india, may be some microbes entering the body through unclean hands/food/air are producing some toxins, which over the period is causing cancerous. Most of the health/cancer studies are conducted in the West where personal hygiene can be taken for granted and hence the after effects of long term lack of hygiene is never considered.

We are all entitled to our opinions, but there was lack of hygiene back in the dark ages also and I don't think people were coming down with cancer because of that. From what I have read, India and China especially, are very polluted countries. They have many chemical factories there and well those factories don't practice "good hygiene". The waters and the soils are very contaminated.

This really bothers me a lot because all the waters of the world are connected. I could go on and on, but I don't want to bore anybody, just wanted to mention that I don't think the cancer is from bad hygiene, just my opinion, I am not a professional. :-)

People in the Dark Ages usually didn't make it past 30 years old. Naturally-occurring cancers (not from excessive chemical/radiation exposure) rarely occur in teenagers and young adults, meaning that they would die before the cancer could kill them. Cancer can, in fact, be caused by bacteria and viruses that are present in places where good hygiene isn't practiced. However, sanitation isn't the primary factor of cancer occurrence, but it may lead to the spread of other diseases.

My aunt was feeling ill and went to the doctor. I'm not sure what she was told but she went home. Within about 10 days later she went to the ER and was admitted to the hospital. By that evening she was dead.
They did an autopsy and found cancer all over her body. How could it have gone undetected for so long for it to spread that much.

Hi Laura, My mother also died from cancer. Her story is almost identical to your aunt's except that she lived a couple of weeks after diagnosis. My understanding is that many cancers do not cause pain or other symptoms particularly in the early days. Even when advanced, the cancer may only produce a vague feeling of being unwell that could be attributed to age or tiredness, so it is easy for a cancer not to be diagnosed.


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