Optimizing Your Body Terrain

Your body terrain is the state of your inner environment. It includes your nutritional status, metabolism, immune function, microbiome, environmental exposures, and more. Eight terrain factors have known links to cancer development, growth, and spread.

What is your body terrain, and why is it important?

Your body terrain is the state or condition of your body. It includes these factors and more:1Lemole G, Mehta P, McKee D. After Cancer Care: The Definitive Self-Care Guide to Getting and Staying Well for Patients with Cancer. New York, New York: Rodale, Inc. 2015.

  • Nutritional status
  • Fitness
  • Metabolism
  • Health and functioning of all your organs
  • Immune function
  • Hormone production and balance
  • Nervous system function
  • Your microbiomethe collection of microbes living on and within your body
  • Environmental exposures including bacteria and viruses, chemicals, radiation, noise, and more 

Terrain as your garden soil

A few gardening concepts provide a good analogy for your body terrain. Indeed, the word “terrain” means “a stretch of land,” so think of your body as the land—rocks, soil, water, microorganisms, wildlife, and all the ways they interact. Let’s think of cancer as a seed from a thorny or even poisonous weed—not one we want to sprout and grow on our land.

Many weeds survive better in poor soil or land in which the soil chemistry, water, microorganisms, wildlife, nutrients, and such are out of balance. By building a healthy body terrain, you deny a cancerous “weed” in your body the environment that allows it to thrive. You also simultaneously promote health and wellness throughout your body.

Tending your soil means bringing your terrain’s nutrients, chemicals, and microorganisms into balance.  We know that if a garden’s soil is healthy, pesticides and chemical fertilizers are less needed—the soil’s healthy balance of microorganisms and biochemistry favors the growth of desired plants and deters weeds from becoming established. The same is true of our body’s garden—a healthy terrain means less likelihood of imbalances or diseases that require chemicals like drugs or invasive medical treatments.

Your dynamic body terrain

Our body terrains change substantially over our lives. Hormone production and balance change dramatically during puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause, but also more slowly as we age. As we age, usually our fitness declines and our metabolism slows. Our microbiome may change significantly based on what we eat, as well as a lifetime of exposures to infections and other environmental agents.

Changes in one terrain factor can interact with other factors. For instance, a change in your nutrition can impact your fitness, your metabolism, the health of your digestive system, your hormone balance, your microbiome, and your ability to respond to infections and environmental exposures.

Terrain factors and cancer

Although cancer is characterized as a disease of genetic mutations, most mutations don’t start as inherited gene mutations. Rather, the mutations develop over time. These mutations are heavily influenced by the biochemical environment of your body terrain.

Some changes turn genes “on” or “off” but don’t change the genes themselves. These are not considered genetic mutations, but are called epigenetic changes. These changes can be passed down through generations, and so in that sense they can be inherited. However, while you cannot change your genes (at least not without a very complicated technological process), you can alter the epigenetic markers of your cancer-related genes.

Within an imbalanced body terrain, cancer-promoter genes are turned on, while cell repair and cancer-suppressor genes are switched off. This altered—and dysfunctional—gene expression changes cell behavior, causing cells to divide too quickly and spread into the surrounding tissue.2Alschuler LN, Gazella KA. The Definitive Guide to Thriving after Cancer. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press. 2013. p. 10. Bringing your terrain into balance can turn cancer-promoting genes off and turn cancer-suppressing genes on.

CancerChoices Senior Clinical Consultant Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, explains the importance of tending your terrain and tumor microenvironment.

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Terrain factors related to cancer risk or survival

We focus on eight main terrain factors related to cancer.

Bleeding and coagulation imbalance

Specialized cells and proteins promote clotting of blood, critical to repair wounds. Too much clotting can impair blood flow, while too little clotting can permit harmful bleeding.

CancerChoices advisor Keith Block, MD, discusses the importance of optimizing body terrain in order to make the body less hospitable to cancer, using blood coagulation as an example.

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Having a healthy body weight is linked to lower risk of many types of cancer, lower risk of high blood sugar and insulin resistance, fewer or less severe side effects and symptoms, and in some cases better survival after diagnosis.

The concentration of sugar or glucose in your blood alters your body terrain. Your body has several processes to regulate glucose. When blood sugar regulators, including insulin, aren’t working properly for any reason, problems such as insulin resistance and even diabetes can arise. In addition, your body releases insulin when glucose in the blood needs to be transported into cells. Insulin is accompanied by growth factors during this process. If insulin is helping cancer cells take up glucose, it may also give them too much growth factor—good for the cancer, but bad for your body.

Hormone imbalance

The relative actions of your hormones influence all your other body systems. The glands and tissues of your endocrine system secrete hormones that regulate body systems and functions, including your heart function, blood pressure, energy production, stress response, wakefulness, blood sugar, reproductive organ development and function, immunity, calcium uptake, and digestion. With hormones, goals for optimizing your body terrain are balance, rhythm, and equilibrium.

Immune function

Your body’s processes to fight infection, neutralize harmful substances, or prevent diseases (including cancer) from progressing are a key part of your body terrain. In a state of chronic inflammation, white blood cells may attack nearby healthy tissues and organs and cause disease.


Your body’s imflammatory response to injury, disease, or irritation of tissues has a huge impact on your body terrain. Acute inflammation is part of normal repair and healing processes. But when tissue doesn’t heal and inflammation becomes chronic, DNA damage can result.

Oxidative stress

Oxidation, a chemical reaction involving transfer of electrons, produces energy for your cells. Excess oxidation produces free radicals (atoms with unpaired electrons) that can harm DNA and other parts of cells. Oxidants are substances or activities that promote oxidation. Oxidants include many toxic environmental exposures. Antioxidants inhibit oxidation, and these include several food components such as tocopherols, ascorbic acid, carotenoids, flavonoids, and amino acids. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between oxidants and antioxidants.

Trillions of microorganisms live in and on you, many of which are in your gut. Your microbiome influences all your body systems, including the immune, nervous, digestive, and endocrine systems.

Many cancer types have known links with these terrain factors and related conditions:

graphic of and link to a chart showing connections between cancer and body terrain factors such as inflammation
Click or tap the image to open the chart.

Body terrain: an enduring concept

The concept of body terrain is not new: Many traditional medical systems teach that to heal disease, the underlying constitution must be returned to balance. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has viewed the body terrain as important for millennia. Ayurvedic medicine uses the body’s constitution (prakriti) and life forces and biologic factors (dosha) as foundations for medical care. But this concept is only recently beginning to gain traction in conventional cancer research.3Lemole G, Mehta P, McKee D. After Cancer Care: The Definitive Self-Care Guide to Getting and Staying Well for Patients with Cancer. New York, New York: Rodale, Inc. 2015. Integrative oncology teaches that tending to the body terrain is essential to healing and wellness as well as curing cancer. 

Integrative physician and CancerChoices advisor Keith Block, MD, focuses more specifically on the biochemical terrain—your body’s internal chemical environment and its interaction with living cells—and whether or not that biochemistry is balanced or disrupted. This influences whether the terrain is more or less supportive of, or hospitable to, cancer.4Block KI. Life Over Cancer: The Block Center Program for Integrative Cancer Treatment. New York: Bantam Dell. 2009.

Integrative physician and CancerChoices advisor Keith Block, MD, discusses terrain and cancer.

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Keep reading about optimizing your body terrain


Laura Pole, MSN, RN, OCNS

Senior Clinical Consultant
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Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, MSN, RN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant

Nancy Hepp, MS

Lead Researcher
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Ms. Hepp is a researcher and communicator who has been writing and editing educational content on varied health topics for more than 20 years. She serves as lead researcher and writer for CancerChoices and also served as the first program manager. Her graduate work in research and cognitive psychology, her master’s degree in instructional design, and her certificate in web design have all guided her in writing and presenting information for a wide variety of audiences and uses. Nancy’s service as faculty development coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Wright State University also provided experience in medical research, plus insights into medical education and medical care from the professional’s perspective.

Nancy Hepp, MS Lead Researcher

Last update: March 29, 2024

Last full literature review: July 2021

CancerChoices provides information about integrative in cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan cancer care. We review complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocial therapy, and acupuncture therapies and self-care lifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices to help patients and professionals explore and integrate the best combination of conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy and complementary therapies and practices for each person.

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