The following is a transcript of a talk given by Dr. John R. Lee at the 1994 FACT Annual Cancer/Nutrition Convention. The text has been edited for space considerations without altering Dr. Lee’s original meaning.
John R. Lee: I think that the information I’m going to give you about progesterone and cancer fits very well with the theme of this year’s meeting, “Healing the Host.” I think you’ve all had enough talks now that you’re convinced that cancer and other diseases come about from imbalance and that the ability of the host to heal itself is absolutely important no matter what disease you’re talking about. In fact the actual diagnosis, as you found out yesterday from the doctor who was telling us about Oriental medicine, is not so important as the balance and the condition of the host.
This is going to be a talk about natural progesterone and its help in protecting someone against cancer. We ought to start with a couple of demotions. These might seem remarkably simple to you and unimportant, but believe me in the present confusion about female hormones, people are mixed up in a lot of their definitions. So the first definition I want to talk to you about is what the word progesterone means. I usually use the adjective “natural” progesterone to make the listener realize I’m trying to say something quite specific. Progesterone refers to one single molecule, a hormone made by the corpus luteum of the ovary as a result of ovulation. The ovary normally makes 2 hormones. It makes estrogen for the first 2 weeks of the month and at ovulation the follicle that produced that egg becomes a little yellow body on the surface of the ovary. That yellow body in Latin is corpus luteum and that is the factory for the synthesis of progesterone.
There is no hormone named estrogen. Estrogen is a class name, like apple. There’s no apple named apple. There’s a Jonathan, a Winesap, a Delicious and so on. And in estrogens you have estrone, estradiol, estriol, and 20 other estrogens. In progesterone it’s one molecule. Now that molecule can be extracted from 5,000 different plants. Plants make oils called saponins, and one of these is a sterol called diosgenin. It’s very easy to extract from wild yams and other plants. Diosgenin in the presence of HCL and a little warm water converts to progesterone–the identical molecule that the ovary makes.
So natural progesterone exists. Now why do I make such a point about this? It’s because typical doctors – and I’m taking about 99% of all the doctors you’re going to come in contact with are going to understand progesterone to mean one of the synthetic progestins that are marketed. They’re synthetic analogues that are somewhat similar to progesterone in the fact that they can do something in the uterus that progesterone also can, that is, to maintain a secretory endometrium which I’m going to tell you about. Progestins don’t necessarily do anything else that natural progesterone does and they are loaded with side effects.
So if you talk to the doctor about progesterones, make sure he !mows you’re not taLking about the synthetic analogues.
Let us talk about cancer. Everybody knows what cancer is, right? No, we don’t know The average person thinks of cancer as a tumor or a growth, a foreign growth that has to be cut out, burned out, destroyed by chemotherapy or something like that.
Cancer is one of your own cells. Some minor change has occurred. Something has gone out of balance in that particular cell and it’s multiplying at a slightly increased rate and it doesn’t necessarily differentiate into the type of cell it was designed to be. So it’s a slight increase of multiplication rate, then a slight loss of differentiation. It is merely a sign, the symptom of a disease; it is not the disease. It is a symptom of an imbalance that has occurred.
You don’t have to take my word for this. I came across this in Lancet and sent it to Mrs. Sackman some time ago. It was in Lancetof February 26, 1994, called “Rethinking Cancer.” It’s by Dr. Allen B. Astrow, St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center in New York, NY., Department of Medicine. He’s a cancer specialist and he says, “After a 25 year War on Cancer, with a growing armamentarium of effective anti-cancer drugs, ever more radical treatment strategies, spectacular advances in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of oncogenesis, mortality rates from cancer in the US are rising.”
We’ve lost the war, using these techniques. They do not work. He argues that a new view has to be generated and offers the approach taken by Schipper et al: “Cancer cells, far from being foreign invaders, are an intimate part of ourselves, essentially normal cells in which proportionately small changes in genes have led to changes in their behavior. The treatment strategy a foreign growth that has to be should be to “re-establish intercellular communications.” The restoration of order begins with the establishment of mechanisms within the cell. We call it re-balancing. They’re getting around to that.
So in the case of progesterone and the cancers associated with estrogens and progesterone, the idea of re-balancing is the prime concept to have in your mind. In the present mind-set of mainstream medicinethere’s no connotation of anything good or bad, just mainstream – there is a syllogism which runs like this: Estrogen levels fall at menopause. Women’s illnesses increase at menopause, therefore, all women who complain of anything at menopause should be given estrogen. That is the sum total of the thinking that goes on in American medicine!
But what’s wrong with this syllogism? Well, I recently came across a paper given by Dr. Graham Colditz from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and he has an interesting graph. This graph represents the amount of estrogen made by women prior to menopause. The middle of the graph represents the amount of estrogen made by women after menopause. The graph represents the amount of estrogen that women have in them when they’re supplemented with additional estrogen. When women go through menopause, their estrogen level does not drop down to zero. It merely drops below the level that’s necessary for them to have a monthly accumulation of bloody lining which is then shed out. It’s no big deal and in third world countries, countries that have not been industrialized, including countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, India, all through China, Africa, Central America and so on, they have no word in their language for hot flashes. They do not have a word for post-menopausal osteoporosis. They do not recognize that anything happens at menopause except you don’t have to put up with monthly periods anymore.
But here in the United States, what do we see? We see that as women approach menopause they develop fibrocystic breast disease, breast cancer, uterine fibroids, endometrial carcinoma and cancer of the uterus. They tend to get a lot of fat around their hips and in their midsection. They tend to get depressed. They retain water and fat. They tend to have high blood pressure, to be tired – the doctors call them or hypothyroid. They lose interest in sex and for every one of these symptoms the doctor thinks he is going to cure it with estrogen.
The fact is that the progesterone that the ovaries should make every month essentially begins to fall in the mid-30s of the typical woman in an industrialized country. They still have their monthly periods. They’re still producing estrogen. Their periods get a little longer and a little irregular, but they’re not ovulating every month and if they’re not ovulating, they’re not making progesterone.
Dr. Jerilynn Prior, at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, first measured the estrogens and progesterone levels of female marathon runners, and found that they developed osteoporosis when their estrogen was still high. But they had stopped ovulating. Their progesterone had fallen and that’s what brought on their osteoporosis. They were estrogen dominant, progesterone deficient.
She thought at first it was due to the strenuous nature of the exercise, that it was using up ill the energy of the person and not enough energy w0 left to ovulate. However, Dr. Prior and others have recently shown that many non-athletic women also experience anovulatory periods. That is, many women in their mid-30’s have low progesterone levels long before menopause. This is true in all of the industrialized countries. This is an epidemic in the North American continent and in Western Europe. Thus it is common for many women 15-20 years prior to menopause to be estrogen dominant due to progesterone deficiency; and they experience a wide variety of symptoms for which our doctors routinely prescribe more estrogen.
There’s something screwy here. The balance is out of whack and the doctors are not even measuring serum progesterone levels and don’t even know what the out of whack is! This is a syndrome that I call estrogen dominance.
When we look at the ‘mown effects of estrogen, we find that estrogen is the sole cause of fibrocystic breast disease. It causes water retention and fat retention and this is why it’s given to steers which are sold by the pound. This imbalance is the number one cause of the fibroids; it’s the only known cause of cancer of the uterus. It has the ability to cause proliferation of the lining cells in the endometrium. These cells multiply faster than at any other time in their life for 2 weeks. Then, normally, progesterone should be produced, ovulation should take place, producing progesterone which stops the proliferation, stops the cells from multiplying so that they mature in a secretory phase. I heard Dr. Philip Incao’s metaphor for this process, that it’s like an apple growing that still stays green, but at a later stage it matures and becomes red. The progesterone causes the maturing of this lining and becomes what’s called the secretory phase. It’s now ready to receive a fertilized egg.
Estrogen is the substance that stimulates proliferation. It does this in the uterus and in the breast. Progesterone is the one that brings maturation, makes it mature, brings it back into balance. Think of that.
So now what do we have? We have an epidemic of breast cancer and cancer of the uterus in the US. We have evidence that it occurs during the time in your life when estrogen is dominant and progesterone is not being produced at the ovulation time. Women are progesterone deficient and estrogen dominant.
How did I come to this conclusion? Why haven’t we heard about this? Why isn’t this in the headlines? This goes back to 1979. I heard a talk by Ray Peat on the nature of progesterone. I’d been in practice for some 25 years at that time and I had a lot of women patients in 25 years who had osteoporosis. For instance, your 40-year-old patients are suddenly 65. It happens overnight. And these women had osteoporosis and a subgroup of them couldn’t take any estrogen. because they already had had breast cancer or cancer of the uterus and their osteoporosis was pretty bad. I heard from Ray Peat about this cream that had natural progesterone in it. I read all of his literature, all of his references. I found more references indicating no side effects. This had been used in cosmetics and creams for 20 years. So I told these women to get this cream and start dabbing it on.
At that time we also had the opening of a clinic that had the means of testing mineral density of the bones using dual photon absorptometry. It wasn’t expensive, no x-ray involved, very accurate. I followed these women for 3 years and discovered that without any estrogen at all, their bones all got better, every single one of them! Their bones got progressively stronger. We’re not talking 2% or 5% or something like that. We’re talking 15, 20, 30% more bone.
I’d also followed the ladies who were on estrogen. Despite their estrogen and despite their calcium and vitamin D and whatever else they were doing, their osteoporosis was getting progressively worse. So I reviewed all the literature on osteoporosis and found that estrogen has never reversed osteoporosis. Never! There’s no study ever showing that giving estrogen by itself reverses osteoporosis. It merely delays bone loss, whereas here for the first time in history these patients who were just on progesterone, their bones were getting stronger. At the same time they were showing me that their fibrocystic breast disease was going away, their fat was dissolving, they had more energy, their thyroid problem was relieved, they weren’t retaining water as much, they were feeling better than at any time in their life. I’d get these cards from the women saying, “My back is better, I can do my gardening and nothing is hurting anymore. By the way, my husband thanks you too.” Libido was coming back!
I decided that the estrogen folks should have a little progesterone, too. Then I discovered from them that when they first added the progesterone, their estrogen side effects increased for the first couple of weeks or the first month. Some developed breast swelling and some a little water retention. I found I had to reduce their estrogen amount to get them in balance. In some of them I reduced their estrogen down to zero. In fact, the majority went down to zero. Some went down to very tiny amounts compared to what they were on before and there was no vaginal dryness, no breast problems, nothing when they’re on the progesterone and then their bones began to get better too.
I learned all these things from the patients. If you listen, you learn from the patient. They’re wonderful observers of what’s going on. They were out telling other people. I wrote some papers about this. I gave some talks to our local staff at the hospital. They all said, “My God, isn’t this amazing.” Some of them would treat their mothers, mothers-in-law or maybe their wives, but they wouldn’t want to step out of line and actually that a patient and be known to their colleagues for doing something as screwy as giving them a cream you can get over-the-counter.
I wrote several papers and then discovered that doctors never read the papers anyway. The way things are, none of these papers would be reviewed in the journals that the doctors are getting. Then I wrote a book and, while I don’t have any product to sell, I did make some of these books available to be sold on the subject of natural progesterone. And through the Women’s Underground this book is selling all around the world. I think we’re creating a revolution.
It turns out that progesterone has more functions in your body than merely setting up the uterus to receive a fertilized egg. First of all, the whole business of the re-creation of the species involves more than just a fertilized egg. Progesterone protects that embryo throughout the whole nine months of gestation. The production of progesterone at the time of conception actually rises. The ovary is stimulated to make more progesterone and as the embryo develops, the placenta develops. The placenta takes over the production of progesterone and raises the production from 20 mg a day to almost 400 mg a day! There is no hormone in your body that is made in the quantity of progesterone. It is for the purpose of bringing about the full maturation and development of the baby.
Progesterone has a second function which is equally remarkable. It is a precursor to all the other major steroid hormones. It’s the precursor to all the cortisones that the adrenal gland makes. It’s the precursor to aldosterone. It’s the precursor to the testosterone, estrone, estradiol and the estriol. It is the primary precursor for all the other hormones. There is no other element like this. No other hormone sits at such a significant place in the biosynthesis of other hormones.
The third function of progesterone is also equally amazing. It has many intrinsic properties for which the mechanism is not yet known. For instance, it facilitates the action of thyroid hormone. It helps with prevention of high blood pressure. It supports the cell membrane so it doesn’t allow sodium and water to cross the membrane. It is a natural anti-depressant. It accumulates in brain cells at a level 20 to 25 times higher than in the blood serum. It’s necessary for survival after a stroke, for example. It’s a very very important hormone totally neglected by medical practitioners today who insist on using the synthetic progestins.
Now, let’s get back to the cancer business. We’ve already agreed that estrogen is the only known cause of cancer of the uterus. This can be blocked by sufficient progesterone. It can also be blocked by the synthetic progest.ins, but not as well. The natural progesterone is better.
We know that a women is protected from having breast cancer if she has multiple pregnancies. In multiple pregnancies you have long periods of time where progesterone is the dominant hormone. In breastfeeding the ovaries do not start raising estrogen. So if a woman combines pregnancies with some time of breastfeeding, her breasts will be much protected against the estrogen effects.
What about other cancers? Consider the Johns Hopkins study reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology. How could you test the cancer protection of progesterone? One good way would be to measure women’s estrogen and progesterone levels and then divide them into 2 groups: one that has normal progesterone levels and one that isn’t making enough progesterone. We’ll call it “normal progesterone” and “low progesterone.” You give a clinic 20 years to accumulate a number of people and then you follow them for another 20 years to see what happens.
This is what Johns Hopkins did. They ran the test for 40 years. They found when the “low progesterone” group was compared to the “normal progesterone” group, the women in the low progesterone group had 5 1/2 times the risk of breast cancer. This was not explained by differences between ages at menarche, when they started, or by menopause or the history of oral contraceptive use, the history of benign breast disease, or the age at birth of the first child. None of the other factors dislodged this ratio of 5 112 times more breast cancer in the low progesterone group. Then the test said, when they looked at the “low progesterone” group for all types of cancers, that women in the “low progesterone” group experienced a 10 fold increase in deaths from neoplasms compared to the “normal progesterone” group.
So having a proper level of progesterone prevents 9/10ths of all the cancers that would have occurred in these women.
So the test that one would desire on this has already been done. As it turns out, I didn’t even know about this when we started in 1981. But I had all these women patients who already had cancer of the breast and cancer of the uterus and couldn’t take estrogen and just out of my pure ignorance I gave them all progesterone. I’ve been following these women now for 14 years. Not one has ever had a recurrence or a late metastasis. None of these women has had any problem with their past cancers at all. So we’re taking hundreds of women that I’ve seen and none of them have had any problem.
Since I retired, I’ve had this question asked of me so many times:what if a woman had breast cancer and the cancer was tested for whether they had receptor sites for estrogen and progesterone and they were positive for progesterone? Well, you all know how hormones work, I think. They’re made by one organ or gland in your body and they float through your bloodstream. They’re relatively small. They float out through the extra-cellular fluid and they can float right through the cell membranes. They only work if they combine with some receptor that is already designed to be there, like a lock and a key. If the receptor is there, it’s called a ligand the hormone binds with it. They float up to the chromosomes in the cell’s nucleus and find the one gene site into which they fit to produce their intended effect. It turns on the chromosome to produce some effect or some hormone or some action in that cell and then it’s released and disconnects and floats on and so on.
My point is that hormones only work if the receptor site is there. When the doctor calls me and says, Mrs. So-and-so had a breast operation, she had cancer. The cancer shows as progesterone positive. Should she be on progesterone? I say, if she is receptor site positive, that’s the only way the progesterone could ever work. Whereas if it’s estrogen-site positive, then she should not have estrogen because it causes the cell to multiply. What does progesterone do? It causes it to stop multiplying. So from my point of view, from all the evidence I’ve seen, even if it’s progesterone positive, that is, the receptor sites are there for progesterone, the patient is a perfect candidate to use progesterone.
There’s one other major factor in this problem. You all know that the incidence of these cancers is rising. Part of it might be explained by the fact more and more women are estrogen-dominant earlier in life. These progesterones are available in raw natural foods such as yam and soy, whereas in our processed food supply they’re not there. In other parts of the world where less processed food is used they’re not having their follicles blocked. Why do the follicles bum out in the industrialized countries?
What has happened in the last year or so is the discovery of all these xenoestrogens. That stands for foreign estrogens. In the environment are residues of substances from petrochemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, poisons of different kinds, plastics, polycarbons, polyphenols, polycyclic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenols. You have dioxin, kepone, lindane – I’ve made a tremendous list of all these. There have been numerous articles in magazines such as Science News , Time, Newsweek , Life. There’s a book out by the Greenpeace organization. Grain crops are sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. They’re all fat soluble. They enter into the grain. These are then eaten by animals. The animals concentrate these petrochemical residues in the fat. Anyone who eats that type of meat is eating all of these compounds and they are all potent estrogens. They have a phenol ring just like the A ring of the molecule of the estrogens.
These particular products are more powerful than your own natural estrogen. They are potent at nanogram levels. A nanogram is a billionth of a gram. All through different species of animals in the US, Canada, England, Scotland and so on, you have a gender change, you have loss of reproductive capability, you have congenital deformities occurring, you have animals that will change their sex. We have female seagulls nesting with other females and male seagulls with other males. The alligators down in Lake Apopka in Florida are found to have atrophic testes and very small penises. The ovaries of the females are found to be giant size and so on. Something is very strongly stimulating them. They all report that the follicles in the ovaries are burned out by this.
Q: Can we get progesterone by eating certain foods?
JL: Yes, it could be done with foods, but the best way is to use the progesterone that’s put in the creams. It’s a cream you put on your skin. Many different companies are sending me their brochures on their progesterone products now, but I’m not in a situation to evaluate them. Some companies disguise the amount of progesterone.
There is no known harm from progesterone at these doses. The most it can do is, if you’re still having periods, to take it out of phase with your cycle. You could mess up the timing of your period. That would be the maximum problem you could get into with progesterone. During pregnancy, remember, you make 400mg a day. With these creams you can get your 20mg a day just as your ovaries make very easily..
The cream may not continue to be available through health food stores because of the work that I did on osteoporosis and fibrocystic breast disease. They’re fearful ‘of selling it because, someone in a store who’s not familiar with all this might say that it’s going to make you superman or superwoman. They’re trying now to sell through doctors’ offices, or through pharmacies, or through clinics or healers.
Q: What happens to the bones when you use progesterone?
JL: Actually, what happens when you give the synthetic one, the bones appear to respond for a while but then the bone isn’t quite as well made and at most one can only get a 5% increase. If you’ve lost 25% or 30%, a 5% increase doesn’t do much, whereas with natural progesterone you can regain all of the loss. Q: I understand the wild yam is used in other cultures for fertility and birth control?
JL: You see, if the progesterone is used early in the month, it can work as a form of birth control. If you give it later in the month, it works to make sure that the baby survives. So it can be used either way and people who have had this in their culture for many years know just how to use it for whatever effect they want.
I wanted to say one more thing about progesterone. It is unique among all the other hormones in that it creates an elevation of your temperature. It’s thermogenic. This is what the Roman Catholic Church uses to tell when you ovulate. When the progesterone surge first occurs, everybody will have a slight increase in temperature. You have these people going around with a slightly low temperature, depressed, with very low energy and their doctors often think that they’re low in thyroid or hypothyroid. All they needed was the progesterone. This business of a little fever is part of the inflammation response which has a benefit in helping you cleanse your body of toxins, fight off infections and even stop cancers. Isn’t that interesting? These signs of progesterone being beneficial are all there and have been neglected.
Q: Is there any occasion where testosterone is useful for breast cancer?
JL: It would be identical to progresterone, so it would be useful .Testosterone has other side effects you’ll be able to sing tenor or bass in the choir and you’ll get to shave every once in a while.
Dr. Peter Ellison of Harvard has been doing some work for the World Health Organization (WHO) because he developed a way to measure the hormones in women by using the saliva. He has shown that you can get a more accurate level of the functional level of estrogen and progesterone by measuring it in saliva, more accurately than through the blood. It’s logical and less expensive. So he has been monitoring estrogen and progesterone levels and finds that the estrogen levels in America today tend to be quite a bit higher than in other countries. With menopause the fall of estrogen is greater in the US and other industrialized countries than in the more agrarian “Third World” countries. Progesterone levels are remarkably stable in agrarian countries whereas, here in the US, women’s progesterone falls to levels quite close to zero, even lower than that found in men. Peter Ellison’s work has just been published in London by WHO.
Q: What do you think about tamoxifen?
JL: Tomoxifen is a weak-acting estrogen, synthetically made, which will occupy the same receptors in breasts and elsewhere in your body as regular estrogen, but being weak-acting it will tend to inhibit your own estrogen from working, or, if you’re taking some estrogen, it will inhibit that. However, it is estrogenic by itself and it does increase your risk of endometrial cancer and in addition it’s toxic to the liver and it has some toxic effects on your eyes.
So giving it to post menopausal women makes no logical sense at all. Other countries view this as another American joke.
Q: My doctor has had me on tamoxifen for some time. Are the negative effects irreversible?
JL: Maybe it can be stopped and reversed if you take the progesterone. I recommend you get a copy of my book because I doubt you’re going to be able to get through to your doctor what we’re talking about today. But if he reads the book and sees its references, it might be effective.
Q: I’ve taken that Pro-Gest cream. Three years ago I said I have to do something. All my bones were porous? I had a depression and flashes and all that, and I found out how to use Pro-Gest and it worked wonderfully for me for 3 years. I was becoming dependent on it. I didn’t even read the instructions. I applied it everyday. Now I have gone into herbs that have the wild yam, and different herbs and I started taking them about a week ago fearfully, but they are great. I feel like I’m taking Pro-Gest, even better. And I want to know if herbs would be a good substitute for the Pro-Gest? They do have wild yam.
JL: Many of these companies are putting wild yam in herbs. I’m asking them if the herb extract actually includes progesterone or not. A lot of them do. Occasionally the amount we need is really quite small. It could well be that one or two milligrams would be sufficient. Some people may need more. It depends on how much estrogen you’re being asked to balance. A woman may be at the level where she just needs the progesterone and doesn’t need any estrogen.
Q: How do you measure for progesterone?
JL: One way is to test for the serum progesterone level. However, the doctor rarely does that. He’ll have to be asked to do that. The other thing is that the “normal” ranges commonly listed are not normal, per se, but merely typical among supposedly normal people in our particular population. It is probably wiser to go on how your body is working. The woman becomes very sensitive to her need. When she says that she feels just as well on the herbs, I don’t doubt it at all.
Q: Is there an age limit?
JL: No, my patients were from 35 to 85 and I tell everybody, once they find the dose that works for them and their bones are getting better and they feel fine, I want them to stay on it til they are 96 and then we’ll reevaluate!
Q: On the Pro-Gest, you say to use it 3 weeks and then go off?
JL: Right. It turns out that the receptor sites for all the hormones have a kind of time period where if you keep them stimulated continuously all the time, they will eventually tune down the response. The monthly cycle of the hormones that nature devised is undoubtedly the best.
So I tell people to be on it for 3 weeks or maybe 3 1/2. Then go by the calendar month and they can be off 4 or 5 days. After that, they can resume the process again. That would be sufficient.
Q: Does it increase the period?
JL: No, it does nothing to increase the blood flow. That’s the function of estrogen. So, postmenopausally you go on progesterone and just follow the calendar month.
RS: John, you heard Michal Ginach (recovered cancer patient) speak this morning. You know she was suffering from infertility. Is it possible because she had those thermos-cooked whole grains which contain natural hormones that she restored the hormonal balance, that it improved her progesterone level and also helped her to become pregnant?
JL: Absolutely. That preserves the hormone.
RS: You know I knew it worked, but I didn’t know why. Thank you, Dr. Lee.