The human body is a multicellular organization or ecosystem whose individual units - cells - grow and reproduce by cell division and organize themselves in collaborative groups of tissues. Tissues further assemble to form organs, pathways and systems. In this functional society of cells where each cell is an independent as well as an interdependent life unit, there occur cellular births, deaths, functional and territorial limitations, maintenance of population sizes, nurturance in favorable habitats, the performance of specific types of work, etc., just as is the case in any society or ecosystem.
Among the systems of cellular taxonomy, one divides cell types into the somatic and the reproductive. The commonality of all somatic cells is one marked by self-sacrifice and having a specific life span whose end witnesses the somatic cell leaving no progeny but having dedicated its existence to the support of germ cells; ovum and sperm, which alone have a chance to sustain themselves after fertilization.
In this way the somatic cells propagate copies of their own genetic code in future generations as they bear the same genes as the germ cells. Contrariwise, in prokaryotic or lower forms of living organisms like bacteria and other unicellular organisms there is a need of competition for survival, in contrast to the collaborative nature of individual cells in multicellular organisms. Any change in the behavior of somatic cells registers an abnormality, or mutation; a mutagenic change, a non-naturalistic behavior of individual cell members of the cooperative, jeopardizes the future of the whole enterprise. Thus mutation, competition, quest for self-augmentation (greed) and natural selection operating within the somatic cells are the ingredients for metabolic disasters like cancer, an outcome which causes the collapse and destruction of the whole cellular society and the organism it forms.
Cancer can be defined as a micro-evolutionary process in which individual cells prosper at the expense of their neighbors and in the end destroy the whole cellular society as well as themselves. Their definitive characteristic is their abnormal reproduction, uncontrolled growth, their propensity for colonizing parts of the body other than their accustomed domicile, and their acquisition of nutrients by pirating nourishment from other cells, resulting in starvation.
According to Ayurveda, the normal, healthy body is sustained through balanced cellular functions operating by virtue of its physiologically functional basic units representing the energies vata, pitta and kapha: the tridoshas.
The tridoshas are compositions of the universal elements of space, air, fire, water and earth, thus making the human body a microcosm of the macrocosmic universe. Any disturbances in the macro-universe or its elements create its replication and reflection amongst its smaller constituent units. Just as a tornado, cyclone, flood, heat wave, etc. would cause irreparable damage in the earth’s atmosphere, similarly, the extent of destruction in the body when these elements are imbalanced and out of control is analogous. In a living body, all constituent cells are individual living entities and as with every other living entity they possess feelings, emotions, expressions and memories even if on an extremely simple, elementary level of sophistication. Ayurveda insightfully maintains that any and all disease begins with a basic imbalance in the smallest unit of life, in other words that all pathology is cellular pathology. The pathology of cancer according to Ayurveda involves the expression of the cellular analogues of extreme greed, desire, aggression and delusion resulting in their abnormal behavior, growth and spread in the form of cancerous tumors and their metastases.
What exactly goes wrong that initiates this altered behavior, and is it possible to eradicate this disease by not only locating its different causative factors but actually preventing their origin?
Let us examine the different causes mentioned in modern medicine and Ayurveda.
According to modern medicine cancer’s first step in causation is carcinogenesis followed by mutagenesis. Carcinogenesis is the exposure of healthy cells to carcinogens which induce further changes. These carcinogens are as we typically know to include:
1. Chemical carcinogens – these are chemical irritants that may cause changes in local nucleotide sequences in cells.
2. Radiation – ionizing radiation like X-rays and atomic energy can cause chromosome breaks and dislocations.
3. Antigens like viruses which induce foreign DNA into host cell.
According to Ayurveda the reason for cancer lies in imbalance of tridoshas, vata, pitta and kapha, operating within the body and regulating all cellular functions. Vata being the composition of the universal elements of space and air controls all actions and movements in the body like external movements of locomotion, expression, etc. to internal movements of digestion, respiration, menstruation, circulation, neural conduction and intracellular activities of transportation and cell division.
Pitta is the energy comprised of the universal elements fire and water and behaves like thermal energy in a liquid state. It maintains all conversion and transformation processes such as digestion, metabolism, regulation of hormones, enzymes and all chemical activities occurring throughout the body even and each of its constituent cells.
Kapha is the composition of the elements earth and water. This energy promotes the growth and maintenance of the bodily elements and structures to nourish, heal, repair, replenish and address issues of tissue wear and tear.
In the healthy state the tridoshas perform their functions in a coordinated and balanced way. To contrast the causes cited by modern medicine for the incidence of cancer, in Ayurveda’s understanding, cancer is a disease of total imbalance and uncoordination of tridoshas at the cellular level which functionally, physiologically, and emotionally damages the cell and degrades its behavior, resulting in its destruction of the whole body.
An imbalanced vata will be vitiated and force multiple cell divisions at a rapid rate, decoding chemical messages incorrectly, diminishing cellular memory, disrupting cellular transportation and communication. From these disturbances at the cellular level symptoms of hyper- or hypo- vata activity manifest throughout the body with respect to its normal functions, including reduced motor activities, fatigue, weight loss, dryness and dehydration, indigestion, mental disturbances, anxiety, etc., which could be primary symptoms of the initial stages of cancer.
Imbalanced pitta when aggravated will disturb metabolism, enzyme production and regulation, and cause an increase in heat resulting in a rapid breakdown of elements. This results in excess secretions, burning sensations, the transformation of incorrect protein or nucleotide sequences and the diminishing the cellular intelligence. At a gross physical level this appears as improper digestion, assimilation, burning pains, lack of luster, depression, etc.
Kapha when imbalanced shows excessive growth by mass and volume and the formation of tissue accumulations which adhere to each other and neighboring tissues. Stimulated by malfunctions of vata and pitta this kind of overgrowth by kapha results in a tumor. This is a neoplasm or “new accidental, and unwanted growth” and shows tendencies to persist and grow in the same manner even after the stimuli which initially evoked the changes has been temporarily removed.
The above factors constitute cancer’s beginning, and a series of coincidental and contributing factors add to its further development as a difficult to cure disease. The many steps that are involved are dependent on genetic constitution, environmental changes, way of life (e.g., stressful urban lifestyles, internal and external exposure to carcinogens and pollutants, food habits, emotional status, immunity and resistance, etc.). All these together give birth to an oncogene, an altered cancer gene having full potential to produce malignant changes in the body. From this we note that cancers are a result of some certainly avoidable circumstances and by using the principles of preventive health care can be stopped before they begin. This definitely requires a health conscious attitude on the part of the individual and an awareness about the existence of mind-body treatments mentioned in the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda.
Ayurvedic knowledge gives us an understanding and insight through its philosophy of our own existence and the various diagnostic and healing modalities (such as pulse diagnosis techniques, panchakarma detoxifying therapies, herbal remedies, mediation, etc.) that can prevent and treat diseases like cancer using our own mind, body, will, strength, knowledge and determination. This can keep us intact in the process of evolution where there is a rule of “survival of the fittest” so that our cells do not fall prey to invasions and destructive alterations, and emerge stronger in future generations.
Article written by Aparna Bapat, B.A.M.S. (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery). She is a senior faculty member and Academic Dean at the Sai Ayurvedic College and Ayurvedic Wellness Center. She has been a dedicated international Ayurvedic Specialist (Vaidya), consultant, and educator since 1990 and is a member of the Board of Directors, National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA). She studied Ayurvedic medicine at the University of Pune, faculty of Ayurvedic Medicine & Surgery. She was a Senior Lecturer at the College of Ayurveda in London, U.K. Dr. Bapat is the author of numerous articles on Ayurvedic medicine and related themes, has made multiple television appearances, and is one of the premiere lecturers, scholars and practitioners of Ayurveda in the West today. Dr. Bapat specializes in pulse diagnosis, detoxifying therapies, Ayurvedic medicines and treatments, and yoga. She does consultations, treatments and conducts Ayurvedic cooking classes.