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This article was originally published as an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post (5 Feb. 2023): https://www.jpost.com/health-and-wellness/article-730587
No one likes to hear or say the word “Cancer.” Certainly, no one wants to receive a cancer diagnosis! People just refer to it as “the illness” or the Yiddish expression yena machale. Cancer continues to be the number one or two killer in most industrialized nations. Here in Israel it is the leading killer, and in the United States, it is number 2 behind heart disease.
There are over 100 types of cancer. Over the last several years, websites of various cancer organizations are describing cancer as a mostly genetic condition. However, research exists showing that although genes are involved, it’s not more than a 10-12% player.
Many cancers are created by lifestyle behavior, others are not. Causes can be smoking tobacco, poor diet, environmental circumstances, second hand smoke, obesity, and certain infections. Some studies have shown that we can prevent about 50-60% of cancers. If one isolates the “Western” cancers (colon, prostate, breast, and pancreatic cancers) the ability to prevent these goes up to about 80%.
So far, the emphasis and research is on curing cancer. While this has yielded some good, limited results, the bigger picture tells a different story. I have written in prior articles the old adage “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” When it comes to cancer, it is absolutely true!
Many of you reading this article may have been a beneficiary of what modern medicine has to offer. When I was a child, a diagnosis of juvenile leukemia was a death sentence. Today cancer patients who have stage one and two Hodgkin lymphoma survive 90% of the time. In some areas of cancer treatment we have indeed made progress. But from the perspective of public health, we need to do much better.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell is the lead author of The China Study. When released in 1990, the NY Times called it “the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.” Most of Dr. Campbell’s focus throughout his illustrious career in nutrition research has been dedicated to cancer. In a paper written in 2018, and updated twice since, he points out sad facts about the “war” on cancer.
War on cancer
If you are a certain age, you certainly remember President Nixon declaring the war on cancer in 1971. Since then, we continue to throw mass amounts of money into cancer research. Despite all of the hype of new drugs and methods to get better 5-year survival rates, the big picture isn’t so rosy. Cancer deaths have declined during the last 3 decades by close to 20%. Much of that has come from prevention and not necessarily treatment. Unfortunately, new incidences of cancer are developing more than ever. As far as finding a cancer cure, we haven’t progressed significantly since Mr. Nixon’s war was declared.
A very large analysis of the efficacy of cancer drugs in 2004 showed that they increased 5-year survival rates only by 2.1%. Dr. Campbell points out that the average cost of developing a cancer drug is between 1.3-1.8 billion dollars. The cost of cancer treatments per year in the U.S. is more than $200 billion. All this to slightly increase a 5-year survival rate! Even worse, many of the drugs used bring about secondary cancers. Whether that is because they destroy the immune system or for some other reason, like the drugs themselves being mutants, is up for debate. Dr. Campbell also points out that at a cancer conference a decade ago in Switzerland, the World Oncology Forum stated that for most forms of cancer “enduring disease-free responses are rare, and cures even rarer.”
We desperately need to change the mindset
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Generally, this definition is mistakenly credited to Albert Einstein. Either way, it is certainly applicable here. For 50 + years, we haven’t found the “cure.”
Whether we look at Dr. Campbell’s research or those of so many others, we know that nutrition and lifestyle are very, very powerful tools. Even after a cancer diagnoses, one’s chances of survival are greatly enhanced by a strict whole-food, plant-based diet along with daily exercise. For instance, I once saw a study showing a 50% increase in survival rates for women with breast cancer who exercised.
From the public health standpoint, we must start using more of our resources to teach cancer prevention. This will require changes in our lifestyle habits, but in return, imagine a lifestyle that can be 50% freer of this disease and others, too! Imagine a quality of life that gives us the ability to be free of constantly going from doctor to doctor or test to test. Picture life without having treatments that sometimes are worse than the disease itself.
10 tips recommended by the American Institute of Cancer Research
The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) is an organization that has dedicated itself to not only helping cancer patients, but has gathered extensive information on lifestyle, particularly diet, and cancers. Unlike other cancer organizations, most of their efforts are concentrated on prevention. They are part of the World Health Organization’s Cancer Research Arm. Their third cancer report was released in 2018. From this lengthy, detailed report we can deduce 10 behaviors to prevent cancer.
- Maintain a Healthy Weight– Keep your weight within the healthy range and avoid weight gain in adult life. The evidence linking body fat to cancer is overwhelming and has grown stronger over the past decade.
- Be Physically Active– Be physically active as part of everyday life. Walking more and sitting less is a great way to reduce cancer risk.
- Eat a Plant Predominant Diet– Make whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and pulses (legumes) a major part of your normal diet. A healthy pattern of eating and drinking is associated with a lower risk of cancer. The closer you follow these recommendations, the more you reduce the risk of developing cancer.
- Limit the Consumption of Fast Foods and Processed Foods– Limiting these products helps control calorie intake and makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight. Evidence shows that diets containing greater amounts of “fast foods” and other processed foods are a cause of overweight and even obesity. Overweight is a cause of 12 cancers.
- Severely Limit Red and Processed Meat– Especially the processed meats. There is strong evidence that eating red or processed meat are both causes of colorectal cancer.
- Limit Sugar Sweetened Drinks– Drink mostly water and unsweetened drinks.
- Limit Alcohol!- There is strong evidence that drinking alcohol is a cause of six cancers, and even one small glass of alcohol a day can increase the risk of some cancers.
- Don’t Use Supplements for Cancer Prevention– Aim to meet your nutritional needs through diet.
- Breastfeed Your Babies when Possible– Breastfeeding is good for both mother and baby. It carries many health benefits, and reduces your chances of developing breast cancer.
- After a Cancer Diagnosis, Follow These Recommendations- Unless otherwise advised, cancer survivors should follow these recommendations. Always check with your health professional about what is right for you.
Seeking out all the tools available
We do indeed need to be at war with this disease. Major improvements can come from a shift in focus and more discussion. Like all chronic disease, most of this is in our hands. Watch the documentary The C Word. Read The China Study, second edition. Access the tools from the AICR and educate yourselves because YOU are in charge of your health.
Let’s add to all of these “awareness” campaigns that come up yearly and start an every day, every month, every year prevention campaign. Instead of settling for 5-year survival rates, we must aim higher. No, we can’t wipe it out completely and some rare cancers may not respond to lifestyle intervention, but most will. Even if we prevent 50%, globally that means 4 million lives saved every year. The great side effect of adopting these 10 recommendations is a decrease in heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, infectious disease, and increase in energy and it will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”