The War We Lost

The Quick Answer:  Despite the billions spent in search of a cure for cancer, history keeps reminding that prevention through a healthy lifestyle is the wiser approach. 


Cancer: The War We Lost

The picture of President Kennedy is a little faded—I took it in 1963 when he visited Costa Rica.  (He seemed so polished and elegant, bigger than life itself.)  Kennedy had launched our race to the moon just two years before, and Apollo 11’s successful landing in 1969 was a national confidence builder.  For years after when difficult projects were discussed, you would hear the phrase, “Well, we got to the moon didn’t we?” 

So you can’t blame President Nixon, in a moment of hubris, for declaring war on cancer in 1971, with the goal to find a cure by 1976.  A five-year cure seemed reasonable; after all we had discovered penicillin and other miracle drugs that could cure the killer diseases of the prior century, hadn’t we?  (It was also a moment of historical forgetfulness, for a single agent has NEVER cured a major disease.  Public health improvements—piped water, sewer systems, safer food—had brought the infectious diseases into decline before the arrival of penicillin.)  Never the less, an army of scientists was gathered and truckloads of money duly delivered.  What have we learned after 40 years and a few hundred billions of dollars?  That cancer is far more complex that anyone imagined, that there may not even be a cure for most cancers, and that a better goal would have been the prevention of cancer.  Considering the lives needlessly lost and the resources wasted, it was a terribly expensive lesson.

Last week we introduced the subject of chronic disease and the early phases—chronic inflammation, and metabolic syndrome.  Evidence suggests the chronic diseases have common causes, shared risk factors, which derive from the modern way of eating and living.  We’ll next look at the diseases: cancer in this post, then prostate cancer (breast cancer was discussed here), heart disease, diabetes, and so on.  Rather than repeat what you’ve already heard, we’ll look at these diseases in a new way, and from the viewpoint of prevention rather than treatment.  (Prevention is surely a unique view; of the billions spent on cancer research, less than half of one percent is spent on the benefits of nutrition.) 

Cancer is an ancient disease, perhaps the oldest.  Yet, though once rare, it has become terribly common.  The incidence rose steadily in the last century until it became the #2 killer in 1926.  Now, half of men and one-third of women will get cancer in their lifetime.  Some think of cancer as a modern disease because it’s growth is aggressive, self-absorbed, out-of-control, and ultimately self-destructive.  What could be more modern?

Here is a fascinating graph.  It shows 75 years of cancer incidence among women.  The graph for men is similar (just replace breast/ovarian cancers with prostate cancer) with the exception of lung cancer.  Men smoked more and earlier so had over twice the rate of lung cancer.  On the other hand they begin stopping sooner so are first to show reduction.  The most interesting curve is the steady decline of stomach cancer.  At the start of the last century it was the #1 cancer but safer foods (thanks to the FDA) plus the arrival of refrigeration (thus safer and less preserved foods) drove it down.  The decline in breast cancer in the last decade is due to stopping hormone replacement therapy—a practice not adequately tested before widespread advocacy by doctors.

If you study this chart in light of the failed war on cancer you might arrive at three conclusions:

1.     Despite a mammoth effort, cancer has not been cured.  (Though several minor cancers like childhood leukemia are now treatable, overall mortality has been reduced by only 5%.)

2.     Lifestyle changes, not curative drugs, have reduced a few common cancers. Changes included safer foods/refrigeration (stomach cancer), stopping smoking (lung and related cancers), and HRT cessation (breast cancer).

3.     Our best chance of avoiding the remaining cancers would be to stop hoping for a cure and seriously strive for a healthier lifestyle.

What to do?

We should first acknowledge how living the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom has protected Mormons.  Tobacco has been associated with 400K deaths annually in the US and alcohol has been linked with 90K deaths.  People—regardless of faith—who neither smoked nor drank alcohol were spared.  We should note that the prohibited hot drinks (coffee and tea) have no deaths associated with them but their popularity drove increased consumption of sugar, which is linked to the rise of cancer.  (It was the availability of affordable sugar that popularized these otherwise bitter drinks.)

The next step is to follow the prescriptions of the Word of Wisdom and return to a natural diet of whole foods, with a little meat if desired.  Note the 10 steps in the prior post on breast cancer, based on work by the American Institute for Cancer Research.  In previous posts we:

•   Recommended cereal products be made of whole grains and contain more grams of natural fiber than sugar (see here),

•   Shared the recipe for our breakfast compote (here), and

•   Visited the cereal aisle of the local grocery and recommended healthier packaged cereals (here).

Recently I interviewed a group of teens before an early morning class, asking what they had eaten for breakfast.  These were good kids but they were not starting their day with a healthy breakfast.  Mostly they were grabbing whatever was available as they rushed through the kitchen on the way out the door.  So we need more attention on, and a little more time for, breakfast:

Budget Wisdom:  In the next post we’ll share a recipe for homemade granola that is less costly and tastier than the purchased products.  A reminder—if you buy oranges and squeeze your own juice, it’s about 1/3 cheaper and way more tastier than the store-bought stuff. 

Please comment on the healthy breakfasts that work for your family. 

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

Chart found here.

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Reader Comments (21)

Skip I eagerly await each of your posts! They never fail to disappoint. I like that you are starting to dive nice and deep with your topics, getting into areas that most of us never hear about.

I admit i am a breakfast skipper, but I am a firm believer that you shouldn't eat unless you are hungry, and I am a SAHM who can prepare a meal at any time. Schoolchildren do not have that luxury.

I do have a baby that needs to be fed each morning. I give him egg in a cup (sunny side up eggs in a cup with whole wheat buttered toast), and I used to give him granola mixed with Greek yogurt but I'm wary of the amount of sugar in the granola. I am very much looking forward to your recipe. Lately I have been feeding him black beans, whole wheat bread, and white cheddar for breakfast. Breakfast doesn't have to be cereal or eggs!

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenna

On days that I don't make something, my kids know that they can have bran flakes, homemade granola, or wheat toast and fruit. Sometimes I have some sort of whole grain muffins I have made, we usually have some greek yogurt too. Sometimes I will make a quick smoothie.
When I do make breakfast it is usually one of the following:
Scrambled eggs (the omega 3 eggs), whole wheat toast and fruit.
Homemade whole wheat pancakes with pure maple syrup, strawberries, and homemade whip cream (sweetened with agave nectar).
Some sort of scrambled egg concoction with lots of yummy veggies rolled up in tortillas.
We love to make our own juice too.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

When I was in my first couple years of university in Canada - which, incase you didn't know, can get pretty cold - I would have hot chocolate for breakfast. Yes, hot chocolate. It was cold and I don't drink coffee, and it would fill me up! Not only did I gain weight but years later I had an embarrassing amount of cavities! I have since learned my lesson about sugary breakfasts!

My on-the-go breakfast is two pieces of whole wheat toast with peanut butter (the kind where peanut is the only ingredient), a little honey and sliced banana.

I also really enjoy Red River cereal with sliced fruit and milk with a shot of pure vanilla. The fruit sweetens the vanilla, so no sugar is necessary and the fruit can change with the season!

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrittney

Fruit smoothies! You can get plenty of antioxidants that way, especially if you use blueberries among others. I like to add a spoonful or two of wheat germ for some of the vitamins and some plain yogurt for the probiotics and calcium. I like to blend one up the night before my early morning nannying so I have something quick and nutritious.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura--The Sushi Snob

every morning starts with a quart of green smoothie. i love it. ccc

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercristie

About once a week I make a whole wheat pancake/muffin mix (about 8 cups worth). I grind fresh flour for it, and store the bag in the freezer. Then all I have to do in the morning is add the wet ingredients and cook it. ...And adding berries and nuts makes it perfect!

I have a new baby, so this freezer mix has been soooo nice!

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Love your blog. Here's what I have for breakfast every single day! A smoothie which consists of the following: 1 ripe banana, 1/2 - 3/4 cup soy milk, huge tablespoon flax meal, two big leaves of kale and about a cup of frozen fruit, usually strawberries, peaches and blueberries, blend till smooth. I wait for a bunch of bananas to get ripe and then make about a weeks worth and freeze them. Each morning I put a frozen one in the fridge for the next day....perfect! Let me know what you think and if you feel I should do something different.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdenise

Thank you for this blog I continue to enjoy it immensely.
My family has lately enjoyed plain Greek yogurt with a touch of honey, berries, and toasted quinoa. The quinoa is mixed with a tablespoon of Canola oil, a tablespoon of maple syrup and toasted in the oven for about 10 minutes. I make a large batch and it keeps great in a sealed container. The result is a perfectly crunchy (and healthy-protein, vitamins, fiber) addition to yogurt, fresh fruit, smoothies and more.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

Hello Skip, thanks for the work that you do here! I really do enjoy reading your blog.
Lately, I feel the clouds have been a little too dark in your sky.
I would love a change of pace continuing with a focus on health without the greater focus on disease and its proliferation.


June 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercath

Skip, I'm thoroughly enjoying these posts! I especially appreciate your focus on the prevention of various diseases because as I've gained a greater understanding of the factors that contribute to these diseases I've felt a greater desire to change my food habits to avoid the inevitable consequences that poor choices bring.
As for breakfast, I've recently discovered Kefir and use it to prepare smoothies made with fruits (my favorite is a combination of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries), almonds and flaxseed. My kids love whole wheat toast with almond butter or Nutella.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentervalena

Cath, you raise a key point. Is it more helpful to give understanding of the disease and the role of prevention? Or is it more beneficial to focus on simply eating, and living, better? I put this question up for comment—what do you readers want?

June 21, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

We love whole grain pancakes- I throw in anything we've got around: WW flour, wheat bran, oat flour, corn meal, ground flax seed. This morning we had steel cut oats with ground flax seed, blueberrys, walnuts, apple pie spice, and a drizzle of honey. Yum!

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKjirsti

I eagerly await your granola recipe. I stopped buying cereal completely back in February and have been making granola every week to have for breakfast instead. I'm always looking for ways to change up my granola so it doesn't get boring.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRill

Ooops, I meant to say "they never fail to exceed my expectations", not disappoint, in my first comment above.

And now I have outed myself as someone who comes back to each post multiple times to re-read what was said and see what other commenters are saying!

I wanted to say that I strongly disagree with Cath. In fact, after this post I called my husband and told him I wanted to start reading every week along with me, because we were going to start learning so much more than we would elsewhere. I like that you are diving deep, getting into topics that we don't hear about often. I had heard the terms chronic inflammation before this, but I didn't understand what it meant for me.

I think you might lose some readers who are just looking for quick tips on what to eat for breakfast or how to cut out more sugar, but going down this current path will leave a wealth of information that truly affect our long term health. We don't like to think that the little exceptions we make in our day-to-day life (this Snickers bar can't be THAT bad for me!) can lead up to things like cancer or chronic diseases, but they do, and I think that's what you are reminding us of with posts like this (and other posts like this that I hope to see in the future).

I hope you will continue to dig deeper, and reach farther. It is not doom and gloom to focus on these things. It would be sad to live in a world where we thought we couldn't do anything about cancer and other diseases, and your posts point out that there is hope! You are shining light along a path that we, along with our children and grandchildren, need to be traveling down. You make it all so accessible and I feel like I can make lasting changes that will have a great impact!

I'm embarrassing myself a bit with my gushing. I just love your blog *that much*.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenna

In your post you said that cancer was the number 2 killer in 1926. My husband was wondering what the number 1 was. Do you know? I also think it would be interesting to know how the Church stood in cancer. Because we follow the WOW do we have less cancer? By how much? Just thinking...

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCamaronO

Camaron, the #1 killer was a group of illnesses collected under "cardiovascular disease" which included stroke, heart failure, and a new condition—heart attacks. Cancer passed TB to be #2. Generally people who don't smoke (including Seventh Day Adventists, LDS, etc.) were spared the respiratory cancers, mainly lung cancer. LDS women have a lower rate of breast cancer (35% less, as I recall), but LDS men have a higher rate of prostate cancer (about 15% higher in one report). So whatever is helping the women is not helping the men. I'll share more in the next post. Best.

June 21, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Jenna, thanks for your comment and your support. I'm repeating what you already know, but we're trying to give helpful information in a way that helps all of us replace the standard American diet (SAD) with a healthier lifestyle by stepping back from the conventional wisdom and using our common sense to integrate food tradition, scripture, and science. It's such a complex subject for us non-scientists that we can easily get lost in the shifting tides. The challenge is to pick our topics and address them in a way that's helpful. To make a difference, we need to grow as a group, so we try to find themes of broadest interest. Best to you.

June 21, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

A favorite breakfast cereal of mine is: 1/2 cup old fashioned oats, 2Tbsp shredded coconut, 1 Tbsp flax seeds, some raw almonds, and a pinch of salt. I pour some rice milk over it and chow down. This is not cooked, so it keeps a lot of its nutrients. So yummy! If you use the regular store bought coconut in the bag, it has sugar added and other mysterious ingredients, so I aim for the all natural coconut. The rice milk is sweetened, so it gives the cereal a little sweetness.

I also like to make a bunch if waffles and freeze them. Its a nice, quick breakfast for the kids. I make my waffles using a typical waffle recipe, but add in oats, flax seeds, and wheat germ. My kids love them. We top them with small amounts of all fruit jam or pure maple syrup.

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTiffanie

P.S. I've really enjoyed your posts! Please don't change a thing. I think it's very important that we know the "why" behind our nutrition choices. That's reality. When we know the "why" it makes the "how" more meaningful and important.

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTiffanie

Hi all,

One of my favorite breakfasts that I can take to work and enjoy while my computer is warming up are steelcut oats.

In the evening heat up a pot to medium/med high heat. Either dry roast or with a pat of butter add 1 cup steelcut oats and maybe a pinch of salt. Roast a couple minutes until nutty smelling. Add 3 cups water. Bring to a boil. Cover, turn heat off, pull off hot burner and let the oats soak overnight. In the morning, transfer the oats to a tupperware to transfer to the office.

Every morning dish up a serving (if the oats seem dry you can add a bit of water) before heating in the microwave). Add honey or maple syrup. fruit, berries and/or nuts. (I like to mix fresh and frozen fruits/berries. I also like how the flavors change depending on if I add them fresh after the microwave vs. adding them before the microwave.)

One batch of steelcut oats can last me for about a 5-day work week. I can have a completely healthy, balanced and filling breakfast by the time I finish checking my emails.

I normally stear clear of the mircowave, but this is such an easy and enjoyable way to enjoy steelcut oats without the time commitment so many people assume you must invest for the steelcut variety.

June 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterholly j

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