Katja Hansen

(WOMENSENEWS)–By now we’ve all heard of breast cancer, but who knows what causes it and a host of other ailments?

For a clue, just think of Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell. When she discovered she had breast cancer, it wasn’t because a scan found a tumor. It was because doctors found a malignancy in a biopsy of the calcium deposits in her breasts.

That discovery may have saved her life, because doctors were able to get the malignancy before it spread to her lymph nodes. Using such signs to pre-empt the spread of cancer is an early line of defense.

Rell’s case shows how breast cancer can be diagnosed by looking into calcium that has gone bad. The tell-tale deposits aren’t just in breast cancer: ovarian and lung cancers often have them too.

Calcification is a rock-hard mix of two of the most plentiful minerals in the body; calcium and phosphorous. This isn’t the good stuff that makes healthy bones and teeth. It’s the toxic stuff that provokes acute inflammation and unwanted cell division.

Women have a special problem with it in osteoporosis, where calcium often leaches out of the bones then mysteriously shows up in the arteries as hard deposits that shouldn’t be there.

Loss of natural skin tone, which women spend billions attempting to avoid, is also characterized by calcification.

Women with breast implants can get calcification that shows up as plaques or tiny capsules on x-rays and must be biopsied for cancer.

In heart disease, calcification is especially important for women because often females are not diagnosed early enough, yet scanning for calcium deposits in the arteries is an effective and easy pre-emptive tool.

Calcification Plays Major Role

In total, more than half the diseases on the leading causes of death list–including stroke, diabetes and Alzheimer’s–are calcification-related.

Calcium deposits are also in non-fatal diseases; at the core of kidney stones, and in swollen joints that typify arthritis.

Young athletes can also get calcification with repetitive stress injuries such as tendonitis, pitchers’ elbow and bone spurs.

There is no shortage of studies on calcification.

Thousands of research papers in the National Library of Medicine database, PubMed, mention it. Together, the picture they paint is astonishing: Calcification may be the leading harmful condition because it is in so many disorders.

Until recently, calcification was “out of sight, out of mind” because medical technology could not track it accurately.

Also until now, calcium deposits were seen as something that came along after other diseases took hold. However, new studies show that calcium phosphate crystals harm cells early. Autopsy evidence from young adults shows some already with calcification in their arteries.

Discovery Just Published

A discovery by leading British researchers, just published in the June edition of the leading medical journal Circulation Research, shows that calcium deposits play a far more aggressive role in heart disease than previously thought.

The researchers published proof that calcium phosphate crystals provoke inflammation in heart disease.

Inflammation is recognized as a leading heart attack generator, but until now doctors thought that calcification had nothing to do with it.

That discovery is a good example of why the disorder is so confusing: doctors have assigned a split personality to it.

On one hand, when a malignancy or heart problem is found at the spot where calcification occurs, doctors are quick to label it as troublesome. However, if no malignancy is found calcification is often considered “benign.”

Other evidence of its disruptive role comes from arthritis, where “crystal deposition disease,” a dominant form of calcification, occurs. The well-known Merck Manual of Diagnosis lists these crystals as causing acute inflammation and being associated with joint destruction.

Still other studies show a worrying pre-cancerous state: the crystals accelerate cell division.

But despite more than a hundred billion (that’s Billion) dollars spent on scanning and x-ray technologies that differentiate calcification from other disorders, no one has known where it comes from or how to get rid of it except with surgery or harsh drugs with unhappy side-effects.

Protecting Ourselves

How can we protect ourselves?

First comes detecting and monitoring. Newer scanners photograph the body in more “slices” than older machines and can more accurately track calcification with software that minimizes earlier human error when measuring progression.

Another encouraging sign: researchers at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., announced to the 2004 Scientific Sessions of the American Heart Association that they can find arterial calcification in those who show no symptoms, using a quick blood test.

Then there is treatment. A group of drugs known as bisphosphonates have been shown to slow calcification in osteoporosis. However, these can also have serious side-effects.

Another treatment using a new combination of well-known and safe medicines has been tried with promising results in two studies; one published by Tampa-based cardiologists in the journal Pathophysiology and the other by Cleveland Clinic in the Journal of Urology. Results have been encouraging and are being applied by hundreds of doctors for thousands more patients, providing results for many who have run out of other options.

But don’t stop drinking milk. The disease usually doesn’t seem to have much to do with calcium intake, because most calcification happens when calcium levels in the blood are normal rather than too high. Some can happen when levels are too low, as with osteoporosis.

For cancer, it is important to find calcification early and track it. Newer technologies and blood tests now let us do that.

Moral of the story: Patients and doctors have to keep up with the science, to save lives.

Katja Hansen, biological engineer, co-authored Book of the Year Award finalist “The Calcium Bomb,” which describes calcification for a general audience.

For more information:

The Calcium Bomb:

World Conference on Breast Cancer Foundation:

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