I must have missed the announcement, but it sure looks like a military "surge" was launched in September in the war on cancer. Most notable was the news that Katie Couric's star-studded "Stand Up to Cancer" telethon, which aired on the three main networks, raised $100 million dollars to "fight cancer." In addition, the results of a whole series of new studies were announced in the last few days promoting major breakthroughs in brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer. All in all, if you were to believe the media, it would appear that we're finally (or more accurately, once again) seeing the long-promised light at the end of the tunnel in the war on cancer. Ah, if only that were true.
Over the years, I've certainly taken some shots at the medical establishment and doctors -- with more than a little justification. When it comes to cancer, I've called them to task for:
- Thinking that the body actually is comprised of isolated parts that can be treated separately, with no consideration of the whole
- Ignoring where cancer actually comes from
- Ignoring the role of diet in health and cancer
- Ignoring the role essential supplements can play in reducing the risk of cancer
- Diminishing the role of environmental and dietary toxins in the promotion of cancer
- Spending their time and your money looking for magic bullet cures for cancer
- And treating cancer as though it were actually caused by a chemotherapy deficiency
Now, make no mistake, I am not anti-doctor. Unlike many in the alternative health community, I am happy to give praise where praise is due. And as I always like to point out, John Wayne Bobbitt was far better off with a surgeon than an herbalist after his wife "adjusted" him. So what is it that I am actually saying? It's that, yes, some day, there most likely will be some major breakthroughs in cancer treatment that will allow you to abuse your body for years on end and not have to pay the "cancer penalty." But that day is not today. And if you come down with brain, pancreatic, or prostate cancer in the next ten years and you're looking for your doctor to save your life, you're making a bad bet. Quite simply, I'm saying that there is far less than meets the eye in all of the stories we are seeing this month. But more importantly, I'm also saying that you can immediately cut your risk of cancer by some 90% without any need for new medical technology, pharmaceutical drugs, or genetic breakthroughs, but with natural disease prevention.
Despite the fact that the Stand Up to Cancer telethon go the biggest play in the media, the crux of the news this month is really about the release of the new cancer studies. In fact, when you think about it, the $100 million raised by Stand Up to Cancer is really nothing more than an extension of those studies since it's going to be used to fund more research of the same type. If these studies are truly advancing us in the war on cancer, then the money will have great value. If the studies are only marginal in their real world impact on cancer treatment, then the value of the money raised will be worth significantly less. So let's look at the studies and see what value we're getting for our money.
Pancreatic and brain cancer studies
Scientists with the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center at the Johns Hopkins University have managed to draw a map of the genetic mutations involved in two of the most aggressive cancers:
- Glioblastoma (the most common form of brain cancer)
- Pancreatic cancer.
Researchers examined more than 20,000 genes in different groups of cancer patients and found hundreds of genetic changes in those people afflicted with pancreatic or brain cancer. Interestingly, they also found that the genetic changes were not identical in the different tumors -- that, in fact, they varied from person to person. The typical pancreatic cancer contained 63 genetic alterations and the average brain tumor 60. Genes blamed for one person's brain tumor were different from those found in the next patient. Although such chaotic data might at first appear to complicate things, that's not necessarily true. As Dr. Kenneth Kinzler from Johns Hopkins, who led the pancreatic work, said, "Genes don't work alone. They function together in small groups called pathways to perform the cell's necessary activities...Figure out which genes cluster in which pathways and a simpler picture emerges."
Out of all the hundreds of genetic alterations they observed, the Hopkins team identified just 12 core pathways that were abnormal in most pancreatic tumors. And in Nature, The Cancer Genome Atlas, researchers reported just three core pathways at work in most glioblastomas. This certainly shrinks the playing field, and as might be expected, companies have already jumped in and are researching drugs to block the particular enzyme pathways implicated in the studies.
Another potential benefit of the studies, as suggested by researchers, is that the work points to possible ways to catch cancer earlier, by tracing mutant DNA floating through the bloodstream well before tumors themselves start to spread.
It's all very exciting! So what am I complaining about? What's my problem? Actually, I see two:
- Understanding that there are pathways and actually controlling those pathways without significant side effects are two different things. How many times have we seen trumpeted intellectual cancer breakthroughs fade into oblivion within a couple of years? If an alternative health company failed to make good on so many promises, the FDA would shut them down in a heartbeat. Heck, Smiling Bob's owner at Enzyte just got 25 years for not delivering on his promises to help with "male enhancement," which is hardly in the same league as failing to deliver on promised cures for cancer again and again and again. Truly, it seems that cancer researchers get to operate under a different set of rules. We spend over $200 billion a year on cancer in the United States alone, and the failure of this money to produce meaningful results is never challenged. No one is held accountable. In fact, failure just begets more money.
- The second problem I have, though, is much bigger. It's that if you actually look at these cancers (pancreatic, brain, and prostate) in their totality (at the forest instead of the trees, if you will), it becomes readily apparent that "inherited" genetic issues may indeed give you a predisposition to getting these cancers, but that predisposition only affects a small percentage of people who actually come down with them. The bulk of these cancers are caused by things that we can control. And, therefore, you can immediately cut your chances of coming down with these cancers by some 90% simply by making some different choices.
Now, the simple fact of the matter is that if I can back those two statements up, then as a society, we are seriously heading down the wrong road. So let's take a look and see what the reality is.
Pancreatic cancer is a common and highly fatal malignancy. Approximately 32,000 cases will be diagnosed this year in the Unites States -- and approximately 32,000 people will die from it. Those, as we like to say in the trade, are bad odds! Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most frequent cause of cancer death after lung, breast/prostate and colorectal cancer. The survival of patients with pancreatic cancer is dismal with most patients dying within 5 years due to cancer-related complications.
Since 1950, the annual incidence of pancreatic cancer in the United States has almost doubled from 5.3 to 9.2 cases per 100,000 people. The incidence is rising at a similar rate in virtually every other developed country in the world. It has been theorized that because the risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases steadily with age, its rising incidence may reflect the fact that the U.S. population is living longer than in 1950. Approximately four-fifths of all cases occur after the age of 60; among 80- to 84-year-olds, the annual incidence is 90.2 cases per 100,000 population, 36 times the rate for people between 40 and 44 years of age (2.5 per 100,000). Then again, the increased incidence could just as easily be explained by more years of exposure to environmental factors and dietary choices that make the body more susceptible to cancer. Is there any reason to believe this might be the case -- that age is secondary to environment?
And the answer is yes.
First, pancreatic cancer is seen most often in developed, industrial countries. The United States and northern European countries, including Great Britain, have high rates; low rates are found in the African nations, South America, the Near East, and India; and rates for southern Europe, Asia, and the Far East are in the middle of the range. Hmmm!
Second, the most important known risk factor for pancreatic cancer is cigarette smoking. Several reports from the U.S. Surgeon General have indicated that the risk of pancreatic cancer for cigarette smokers is 2-3 times that of nonsmokers. The increase in the incidence of pancreatic cancer followed the increased use of cigarettes that began after World War II. Evidence of the relationship between smoking and pancreatic cancer is provided by the recent increase in mortality from this disease among women, whose use of cigarettes has also steadily increased. In fact, the death rate for women has gone up twice as fast as the rate for men.
Further, scientists have reported that a diet high in meat and fat may be related to a 50% increase in your risk of getting pancreatic cancer. And in addition, one large study suggested that fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk by an equivalent 50% (how poetic). Finally, a significant percentage of patients with cancer of the pancreas have worked in occupations where they were exposed to solvents and petroleum compounds.
All of which brings us to the issue of genetics -- the family histories of patients with pancreatic cancer, which would be indicative of possible genetic factors for the disease. And yes, some limited evidence of familial predisposition has been found -- but more frequently for endocrine than for exocrine tumors. (Note: endocrine tumors account for only about 10% of pancreatic cancers.) That means that for 90% of pancreatic cancers, there is no indication of any kind that genetic predisposition plays any significant role.
The bottom line is that the overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that the cause of most cases of pancreatic cancer is not hereditary -- that genetics is not a primary causative factor. And yet, genetics is the area of research your money has just funded -- not to mention, in all likelihood, a chunk of the $100 million raised by Stand Up to Cancer. That's got to give you a warm fuzzy feeling.
Okay, that's just one part of the studies. What about brain cancer? Do the results make more sense when it comes to glioblastomas? And the answer is: not really.
The statistics on brain cancer are almost as grim as for pancreatic cancer. Approximately 17,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with primary brain cancer each year and nearly 13,000 die of the disease. The annual incidence of primary brain cancer in children is about 3 per 100,000. Secondary brain cancer occurs in 20--30% of patients whose original cancer has metastasized, and incidence increases with age. In the United States, about 100,000 cases of secondary brain cancer are diagnosed each year. But as bad as that sounds, it's getting worse. The incidence of brain cancer is increasing -- dramatically.
In one study, a new analysis of data collected by the National Cancer Institute's nationwide cancer surveillance program, researchers at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md., have determined that among people over the age of 75, the incidence of brain tumors more than doubled from 1968 to 1985, the last year for which statistics are available. In 1985, incidence rates for persons aged 75-79, 80-84, and 85 years of age and over were up 187%, 394%, and 501%, respectively, over rates in 1973/1974 -- or by as much as 23 percent a year.
Further confirming these results, several years ago, scientists at the National Research Council in Washington, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and other institutions compared mortality figures from about 1968 to 1987 for the United States, Britain, Italy, France, West Germany and Japan. They found that among people 65 and older, deaths from brain tumors rose in all nations by some 200 percent for the period.
''There's a stunning increase in mortality'' from brain tumors, said Dr. Devra Lee Davis, an author of the paper. ''It holds true for all countries, a very sharp increase in a relatively short period of time.''
So once again, as with pancreatic cancer, the overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that the cause of most cases of brain cancer is not hereditary -- that genetics is not a primary causative factor. Genetics cannot account for increased incidence rates of up to 500% in just 20 years. And yet, genetics is the area of research your money has just funded -- not to mention, once again in all likelihood, a chunk of the $100 million raised by Stand Up to Cancer. So yet again, more warm fuzzies.
Oh, did I mention cell phones as a possible cause? I probably shouldn't go there. The last time I posted a blog on the topic, a number of people let me know, with great passion, that the only way they'd give up their cell phones is if someone pried them from their cold, dead hands -- which is looking more likely all the time.
The studies on prostate cancer are of a different type, but also point to environmental and dietary factors as being its chief cause, not genetics.
First, there's the study out of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and the University of Wisconsin, which indicates that men who have too much calcium in their bloodstreams may have an increased risk of fatal prostate cancer.
According to Gary G. Schwartz, Ph.D., associate professor of cancer biology and of epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest, the study showed, "That men in [the] upper range of the normal distribution of serum calcium subsequently have an almost three-fold increased risk for fatal prostate cancer."
It should be pointed out that serum calcium ordinarily is tightly regulated by the parathyroid hormone, so in normal situations there is little variation in an individual's serum calcium over time regardless of diet or supplementation. So where is the calcium coming from? Two possibilities stand out:
- Hormonal imbalance broughton by stress can easily throw calcium blood levels out of whack. For example, a very damaging effect of adrenal dysfunction is excessive cortisol production. Excessive cortisol production causes an increased calcium mobilization from the bones and into the bloodstream. Hormonal imbalances can also be caused by exposure to chemical estrogens, which can throw the parathyroid out of whack.
- A high acid diet forces your body to pull calcium into the bloodstream to buffer the high acidity since your blood cannot tolerate pH changes. What comprises a high acid diet? Meat, dairy, cooked grains, sugar, alcohol, sodas, and most fruit juices. Hmm. Does that sound like anyone you know?
And there are more studies
Other studies released this month include one out of the University of Rochester Medical center that found that men who regularly take aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have lower serum PSA levels and a study funded by the National Health Service Health Technology Assessment Program that found that taller men are more likely to develop aggressive prostate cancer. Interestingly enough, although this might appear to have a genetic link, the researchers did not think so. They speculated that is more likely the result of childhood environmental factors such as diet and nutrition.
In any case, the key point is that once again, as with brain cancer and pancreatic cancer, all of these studies point away from genetics as the primary factor in causing prostate cancer, and yet again to environmental and dietary factors.
So what have we learned about cancer and our health options?
Look, I don't mean to be a killjoy here. Ultimately, I believe that genetic research will produce some major health advancements for humanity -- but that day is not today. Significant genetic treatments for cancer are not on the immediate horizon. And besides, why would you want to wait. We already know how to reduce your risk of cancer by some 90% overnight by working to strengthen your immune system -- your body's normal safeguard against cancer, regardless of genetics.
Again, hats off to Katie Couric and the other news anchors for their Stand Up to Cancer telethon that raised $100 million for research. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that $100 million will produce much value -- not, at least, as long as it continues to fund research that looks in the wrong place. Only about 10% of all cancers are strongly related to genetics. Fully 90% of all cancers are connected with diet, lifestyle, exposure to toxins, and a compromised immune system -- all things we can exercise control over...now!
PS: For more on cancer (what causes it, how to prevent it in a healthy way and by using natural alternatives, and even how to potentially reverse it), check out my talk, Cancer: the Big Lie. It was recorded some six years ago -- and other than some minor adjustments on the statistics, it's as spot on as ever. It's also free. And it's available now.