The number one cause of death in the US is cancer. Many of us go to doctors yearly. We nervously wait for the results of tests.
Do I have the Big C – or don’t I?
Now cancer is moving on to become the number one cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization.
And the WHO feels half of that can be prevented.
Why Is There So Much More Cancer?
Perhaps the biggest reason is that people are living longer; second is that developing world populations are adopting a developed nation lifestyle.
The biological reason is basic. For what is biological life except a regenerating system of information powered by chance.
To survive we remake ourselves endlessly. Much of the body is remade within weeks.
If the information is transcribed incorrectly, cancer may result. That’s what is felt to happen with many common genetic mutations.
And many mutations are propelled by chance events. They can be changing viruses, like those that cause types of lymphoma; exposure to chemicals, like the PVC monomer than causes certain liver tumors; or the many new mutations brought about by smoking or chewing tobacco.
The older we get, the more the chance events.
So What Can Be Done to Prevent Cancer?
It’s useful to look at what the WHO considers the most preventable causes, and see what populations and individuals can do:
1. Tobacco. Even tertiary smoke can cause tumors ranging from lung to esophagus to kidney.
Many nations ban smoking from public places. Kids are not allowed to smoke. Anti-smoking ads and programs help.
Perhaps the ecigarettes so prevalent today – yoked together with cognitive behavioral treatments – will help individuals quit smoking. One thing that does cut tobacco use is raising the price of a pack. Early education in schools also helps.
2. Infections. AIDS is now more effectively tackled than in the past. Hepatitis B has a highly useful vaccine, and hepatitis C may have one soon. Perhaps the most useful new development for Americans is HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine. Vaccinate young girls and the rate of cervical cancer should go way down.
Much still remains to be done treating IV drug users, who may survive many infections before succumbing to very nasty tumors those viruses set in motion.
3. Obesity – Think of fat as pro-inflammatory, and the obesity epidemic’s effect on cancer becomes easier to understand.
Bigger people get more tumors. People who eat more processed food get more tumors.
Refined sugar is a major factor in obesity worldwide. If you do the thought experiment – sugar leads to obesity leads to cancer.
Is it time to think of added refined sugar – of which there are 30 kinds, including high fructose corn syrup, as carcinogenic? Look at the population studies and you might draw that conclusion.
So subsidizing corn substitutes through agricultural subsidies – like what the US does – looks like a bad idea. As does advertising sugary snacks and foods to kids.
Cutting agricultural subsidies can save billions of dollars a year now, then tens of billions in future health care costs.
4. Alcohol. Regular low dose alcohol may prevent cardiovascular disease, perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease. Yet overall death rates don’t really budge much.
Why? Alcohol is a carcinogen.
Alcohol is also many other things. But people who drink too much put themselves and their families in jeopardy.
Binge drinkers may be more concerned with police wielding breathalyzers than of dying from tumors.
They should fear both. And their families and friends should let them know, too.
5. Air and Water Pollution – Cut the amount of soot and particulates in the air, and cancer rates go down. Many different substances, from heavy metals to industrial pollutants, can cause cancer.
Yet water and air quality have improved much in the US. Elsewhere the problem is bigger – some estimates are that northern Chinese lose five years of life on average to pollution, particularly from coal plants.
If fracking does not dramatically increase methane levels, the replacement of coal with natural gas may prove a boon to the public health.
6. Radiation and Sunlight – in Australia an interesting experiment was tried.
One beach town got unlimited supplies of sunscreen. The next town did not.
People did not have to use sunscreen. But if they wanted to, it was free.
In the town with free sunscreen, rates of melanoma went down 50%.
Sunlight has many different uses. It can make people less depressed. It can boost vitamin D.
It can also roast people. That causes melanoma, basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma.
Effective treatments go beyond sunscreen. People can wear clothing on the beach. They can wear hats. They can avoid sun tanning salons.
And medical use of radiation is increasing cancer risk. Do we need as many CAT scans as we do? As many diagnostic x rays?
Here the prevention can be done simply – by performing diagnostic tests only when clinical trials indicate their worthfulness.
What Can Be Done
Cancer is now the leading cause of death in the US. Soon that will prove true almost everywhere.
Much of it is preventable.
Public health actions – like cleaning the water and air – can help.
But people can do a great amount on their own.
They can walk. They can shade their skin from excessive sunlight. They can eat whole foods and try cuisines, like the Mediterranean diet, associated with better health.
If they do, collectively they will prevent a great amount of illness.
And cancer is just one example. Controlling obesity also prevents heart attack, stroke and diabetes. Cutting back on tobacco and alcohol can prevent tumors, infection, heart and vascular disease.
The message is pretty simple – use the body the way it’s built. Do that, and more than cancer can become preventable.
And the healthier you become, the healthier your community becomes.
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