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.