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Why the Cancer Moonshot Should Be Heading Toward the Sun

Story at-a-glance -

  • President Obama has established the “Cancer Moonshot Task Force,” to create a plan to “enable progress in treatment and care” of cancer. However, optimizing vitamin D does not appear to be part of this
  • Having a serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of 40 ng/ml has been shown to slash your risk of invasive cancers by 67 percent compared to lower vitamin D levels
  • Men diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer typically have vitamin D levels below 23 ng/ml. Researchers suggest vitamin D can be used as a biomarker to predict the aggressiveness of prostate cancer

By Dr. Mercola

At the end of January 2016, President Obama established the "Cancer Moonshot Task Force" with the aim of creating a comprehensive plan to enable progress in treatment and care of cancer.1

Based on the overwhelming amount of evidence at our disposal, optimizing vitamin D is one of the foundational strategies that really need to be part of any comprehensive cancer treatment plan, yet from the looks of it, it's not.

On Medscape's website, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong explains the new technologies the Moonshot program aims to bring forward. You can also learn more about the program in the press conference video below.

Soon-Shiong invented human nanoparticles out of blood, which allows the cancer to be mapped. The treatment also involves whole genome sequencing and personalized, targeted immunotherapy. As noted by Soon-Shiong:

"My view of the next-generation therapy is to take this high-dose standard-of-care chemotherapy and reduce it to low-dose chemotherapy given in the outpatient setting.

Then, we engage in hand-to-hand combat with the cancer cells in real time with the dendritic cell, the natural killer cell, the T cell, and the suppressor cell."

How Many Must Die Before Vitamin D Science Is Recognized?

While Soon-Shiong wisely recognizes the need to strengthen immune function, allowing the body to clear itself of the cancer without resorting to "carpet bombing" with toxic chemicals, he doesn't mention the influence of vitamin D on immune function at all.

I firmly believe that any cancer prevention or treatment strategy that excludes vitamin D is depriving the patient of a safe and vital immune boost to defeat the cancer.

Moreover, the current recommendation to avoid sun exposure in order to avoid skin cancer is likely increasing other more serious cancers. Prevention, after all, is worth a pound of cure, so why are people told to engage in behavior that will dramatically increase their cancer risk?

Recent research2 shows that UV abstinence is actually as dangerous as smoking when it comes to cancer and overall mortality risks. In this "competing risk" analysis, the life expectancy of sun avoiders was reduced by as much as two years when compared to those who got the highest amount of sun exposure.

As noted by Michael T. Murray, N.D. who reported and commented on these findings:3

"These results shatter conventional wisdom, but they are not new. Noted vitamin D researcher Dr. Michael Holick, warned almost a decade ago that avoiding sun exposure to prevent skin cancer results in such a drop in vitamin D levels that for every life saved from skin cancer over 100 people will lose their lives to other forms of cancer ..."

Improving Vitamin D Status Is a Key Cancer Prevention Tool

The evidence now clearly shows that once you reach a serum vitamin D level of 40 ng/ml, you see a major reduction in virtually all cancers.

The Health and Medicine Division (HMD) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (formerly Institute of Medicine, IOM) has also reported an association between vitamin D and overall mortality risk from all causes, including cancer.4,5

So why is there such resistance against vitamin D optimization through sun exposure as a cancer prevention strategy when the scientific evidence showing the enormous benefits are right there in black and white?

Vitamin D has become one of the most well-researched nutrients out there, and studies have repeatedly demonstrated that it can significantly reduce your cancer risk, and increase your chances of surviving cancer if you do get it. 6,7

Most recently, researchers at the University of California found that women with a vitamin D serum level of 40 ng/ml or greater had a 67 percent lower risk of cancer compared to women with levels of 20 ng/ml or less.8,9,10,11,12,13,14

Serum Cancer Association Statistic
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The study included ALL invasive cancers, with the exception of skin cancer, and had a follow-up period of nearly four years. In my view, this is a finding that simply cannot be ignored. As reported by Science Daily:15

"Primary prevention of cancer, rather than expanding early detection or improving treatment, will be essential to reversing the current upward trend of cancer incidence worldwide,' the researchers wrote.

'This analysis suggests that improving vitamin D status is a key prevention tool.'"

Vitamin D Boosts Immune Function — Your Primary Defense Against Cancer and Other Disease

While I certainly do not discount the benefits of targeted immunotherapy, it seems inadvisable to say the least to ignore the very basics of health, such as diet and lifestyle, when developing cancer treatments. This is particularly true when it comes to vitamin D, as it is indeed a very important immune booster.

This was again demonstrated by researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. According to this study,16 vitamin D helps prevent colorectal cancer by boosting immune function and activating T cells to attack and eliminate cancer cells. As noted in the Institute's press release: 17

"The research published ... by the journal Gut, represents the first time that a link between vitamin D and the immune response to cancer has been shown in a large human population. The finding adds to a growing body of research showing that vitamin D — known as the 'sunshine vitamin' because it is produced by the body in response to sunlight exposure – plays a key role in cancer prevention."

Senior author Dr. Shuji Ogino also added that:

"This is the first study to show evidence of the effect of vitamin D on anti-cancer immune function in actual patients, and vindicates basic laboratory discoveries that vitamin D can interact with the immune system to raise the body's defenses against cancer. In the future, we may be able to predict how increasing an individual's vitamin D intake and immune function can reduce his or her risk of colorectal cancer." [Emphasis mine]

In related news, researchers have also discovered that men diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer tend to have vitamin D levels below 23 ng/ml. According to this study,18 vitamin D may actually be used as a biomarker to predict the aggressiveness of prostate cancer. According to lead investigator Dr. Adam Murphy, "All men should be replenishing their vitamin D to normal levels. It's smart preventive health care."

How Vitamin D Helps Protect Against Cancer

Vitamin D influences virtually every cell in your body, which is part of why it's effective against so many different kinds of cancer and other disease states. Your organs convert the vitamin D in your bloodstream into calcitriol, which is the hormonal or activated version of vitamin D. Your organs then use calcitrol to repair damage, including that from cancer cells. Vitamin D also triggers apoptosis (cell death) in cancer cells.

According to vitamin D researcher Cedric Garland19 in nearly all forms of breast cancer vitamin D affects the structure of your epithelial cells. These cells are held together by a glue-like substance called E-cadherin, which provides structure to the cell. E-cadherin is made up of mostly vitamin D and calcium. If you don't have adequate vitamin D, that structure comes apart and those cells do what they are programmed to do in order to survive — they go forth and multiply. If this cell proliferation gets out of control, you may end up with cancer.

If you have breast cancer in progress, the addition of vitamin D can help stop cancer cells in their tracks by replenishing E-cadherin. Once cancer growth is slowed, your immune system can begin to get ahead of the cancer cells, because it doesn't have to deal with such an overabundance of them.

Researchers have also discovered two specific compounds that appear to enhance the antitumor activity of calcitrol.20 They found that overexpression of an enzyme called CYP24A121,22 was responsible for dampening calcitrol's antitumor effect, and the two compounds in question help inhibit this enzyme, thereby boosting calcitrol's protective effects against cancer. A third compound was also found to increase expression of a protein that helps inhibit cancer growth.

10 Warning Signs You May Have a Vitamin D Deficiency

It's important to realize that the only way to determine your vitamin D status is via blood testing. Ideally, you want a serum 25(OH)D level of 40 to 60 ng/ml year-round for optimal health and cancer prevention. However, there are some signs and symptoms of vitamin D deficiency23 to be aware of as well. If any of the following apply to you, you'd be wise to get your vitamin D levels tested sooner rather than later.

Darker skin

African Americans are at increased risk of vitamin D deficiency for the fact that your skin pigment acts as a natural sunscreen, so the more pigment you have, the more time you'll need to spend in the sun to make adequate amounts of vitamin D.

If you have dark skin, you may need as much as 10 times more sun exposure to produce the same amount of vitamin D as a person with pale skin.

Head sweating

One of the first, classic signs of vitamin D deficiency is a sweaty head. In fact, physicians used to ask new mothers about head sweating in their newborns for this very reason.

Excessive sweating in newborns due to neuromuscular irritability is still described as a common, early symptom of vitamin D deficiency.24

Mood swings, feeling "blue" or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Serotonin, the brain hormone associated with mood elevation, rises with exposure to bright light and falls with decreased sun exposure.

In 2006, scientists evaluated the effects of vitamin D on the mental health of 80 elderly patients and found those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who received healthy doses.25

Over the age of 50

As you get older your skin doesn't make as much vitamin D in response to sun exposure. At the same time, your kidneys become less efficient at converting vitamin D into the form used by your body.

Older adults also tend to spend more time indoors (i.e. getting even less sun exposure and therefore vitamin D).

You're overweight, obese, or have higher muscle mass

Vitamin D is fat-soluble, which means body fat acts as a "sink" by collecting it.

If you're overweight or obese, you're therefore likely going to need more vitamin D than a slimmer person — and the same holds true for people with higher body weights due to muscle mass.

Achy bones

Many who see their doctor for aches and pains, especially in combination with fatigue, end up being misdiagnosed as having fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.

However, these are actually classic signs of vitamin D deficiency osteomalacia. This is different from osteoporosis, which is also associated with vitamin D deficiency.

In the case of osteomalacia, the vitamin D deficiency prevents the proper distribution of calcium into your skeleton's collagen matrix. The result is throbbing, aching pain in your bones.

Impaired muscle function

Harvard researchers have reported that vitamin D deficiency can result in muscle weakness, especially if you're over 60. The National Institutes of Health has also reported that vitamin D deficiency can impair muscle function.26

Persistent fatigue

Vitamin D is important for energy production, and people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome tend to be low in vitamin D.

Gut dysfunction

Since vitamin D is fat-soluble, if you have a gastrointestinal condition that affects your ability to absorb fat, you may have impaired absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D.

This includes gut conditions like Crohn's, celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and inflammatory bowel disease.


The National Psoriasis Foundation recognizes the importance of vitamin D, noting vitamin D deficiency is a very common factor in those with this skin condition.27

Optimizing Your Vitamin D Level Is a Simple, Inexpensive Disease Prevention Strategy

Prior to 2000, few doctors ever considered the possibility that you might be vitamin D deficient. But as the technology to measure vitamin D became inexpensive and widely available, it became increasingly clear that vitamin D deficiency is rampant, and that it is a major factor influencing cancer rates.

While statistics vary, it's generally found that at least half of the U.S. population has insufficient amounts of vitamin D. Researchers have also noted that vitamin D deficiency is particularly prevalent in people who always wear sun protection (which blocks vitamin D production) or limit their outdoor activities.

Despite its name, vitamin D is not a regular vitamin. It's actually a steroid hormone that you are designed to obtain primarily through sun exposure, not via your diet. While some foods do contain some vitamin D, either naturally or through fortification, it would be nearly impossible to get all the vitamin D you need from diet alone.

At present, the U.S. Surgeon General,28,29 the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), and many other cancer organizations recommend complete and total sun avoidance in order to prevent skin cancer. The AAD will not even acknowledge different recommendations based on skin type.

This is a disastrous recommendation, as sun avoidance has been shown to increase your risk of death very similar to that of smoking. It's incomprehensible to me that health officials would warn you about the risks of smoking, but not about the risks of sun avoidance, when both have similar impact on disease and mortality risks.

Sensible Sun Exposure Is the Best Way to Optimize Vitamin D

The same organizations that promote sun avoidance also recommend addressing any vitamin D insufficiency by eating vitamin D fortified foods or taking supplements. This despite the fact that most vitamin D experts believe this is not as safe and effective as sensible sun exposure.

Just like any other nutrient, supplements are meant to supplement natural sources, and in the case of vitamin D, that's sun exposure. Never in the history of mankind have we relied on pills for vitamin D production, and there's no evidence to suggest that it would be wise to do so. Making matters worse, intake recommendations are sorely underestimated.

  • The Health and Medicine Division (HMD) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (formerly IOM), recommends taking just 600 IUs of vitamin D a day up to age 70. But as pointed out in a 2014 paper,30 the HMD underestimates the need by a factor of 10 due to a mathematical error. Research31 suggests it would require 9,600 IUs of vitamin D per day to get a majority (97.5 percent) of the population to reach 40 ng/ ml.
  • The American Medical Association uses 20 ng/ml as sufficient, but research has shown that this level significantly increases your risk for cancer; 40 ng/ml is really the cutoff point for sufficiency in order to prevent cancer and many other diseases.

By adhering to sensible sun exposure guidelines and making sure you do not get burned, you can maximize your benefits and minimize the risks of skin damage that could lead to skin cancer. On the whole, overexposure, not avoiding all sun exposure, is the real problem when it comes to raising your risk for skin cancer.32 Meanwhile, optimizing your vitamin D via regular UV exposure can help decrease your risk of well over a dozen different cancers that are far more common and far more deadly than melanoma.