Living the WELL Life

Cash, Cancer and Confusion

Thursday, January 31, 2013

My first memory of the war on cancer is from the 1950’s. In the school assembly a movie was shown about how cancer was the silent killer. There was one line that stuck. The horror voice on the film said, “Look to the right, now look to the left, one out of three people will die of cancer.” That freaked me out. I cannot remember who I was sitting next to, but I have to say I was hoping it was one of them that got the bad news. Something certainly should be done, no question.  The answer was to put a bounty on its head and kill it dead.  A few years latter Richard Nixon declared the war on cancer. It has turned out to be the medical version of Vietnam. 

This time of year in Scotland fundraising for cancer research reaches its peak. On television there are at least two campaigns: there is fundraising on the street in town as well as in the newspapers.  Today I received a plea through the mailbox. In one of the TV ads they say that everything has a natural enemy; the natural enemy of cancer is research. Based on the “war” so far, if research is the enemy cancer doesn’t need to worry about. 

Obviously we want and need effective treatment for the cancers that plague our society. The rates are going up and according to the World Health Organization the rates of cancer will double over the next two decades. About 12.5 million people will be diagnosed with cancer each year and 7.5 million will die of the disease. It would be cold hearted not to give and so we do.  It is the monetary version of prayer; we pay out in hope of a miracle. 

It is difficult to get accurate figures on amount of money raised and spent by the cancer industry but some numbers are interesting. In America, the National Cancer Institutes (NCI) and the American Cancer Society (ACS) combined spend at least 7 billion a year. The EU spends about half that so there is a combined expenditure of around 10 billion in North America and Europe. This figure does not include the hundreds of other organizations that raise funds. The fact is that the public puts out a goodly sum for research that has been largely unproductive. 

There have been some notable exceptions such as increased effectiveness in treating childhood leukemia. That is surely a good thing; these children are blameless and we should be doing everything possible to save their lives. There has also been some improvement in the side effects of several drugs that are commonly used but the overall picture is bleak. The costs of new drugs in the market are extremely expensive, some cost as much as $10,000 a month. According to David Howard of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University, “The progress for cancer has been halting and slow, new breakthroughs over-promise and under-deliver.”  Some of the expensive treatments add only a few months to life expectancy. This rise in treatment cost is one of the major reasons that medical treatment has been a major cause of personal bankruptcy in the last few years. 

Cancer is a thriving industry. Last year over 400 billion was spent in treatment. That is more than the entire amount of gold stored in the New York Federal Reserve. The bottom line seems to be a bottomless pit. No matter how much we spend coming up with ineffective drugs, needless screening or questionable surgeries the rate of cancer continues to rise and costs continue to keep pace. 

The language we use to describe our relationship to this disease is telling. We have the “war” on cancer and “the fight against” both heart disease and diabetes. You declare war or fight against external forces - in this case invisible assassins who lurk in our bodies or in the air around us. These mysterious and potent demons demand the attention of a special breed of wizard who can unravel the molecular mysteries of these malicious killers. We need more information! We need some magic, a miracle to make us feel safe. That’s what we trust science to provide and doctors to deliver. The truth is we are looking in the wrong place; the emperor is not only naked but looks more and more like a decrepit corpse. The one place we refuse to look is in the mirror.

There is general agreement that 80-90% of all cancers are caused by environmental (external) factors. Some of these factors are pollutants - the result of manufacturing processes released into the air we breathe or the water we drink. Some are carcinogenic chemicals used in agriculture or the result of smoking. The most important single factor that raises cancer rates is the foods we eat. All of these are influences we allow because of hubris, ignorance or apathy. 

According to the World Cancer Research Fund & American Institute for Cancer Research 30-40% of this influence is directly linked to diet. It is important for us to understand the impact of this simple truth. Over a third of cancer deaths could be prevented if we wanted it. We are choosing cancer over potential inconvenience. This is not new news. It is not a flash insight in response to leading edge research – this has been known for over 40 years.  The perfect storm of corporate greed, medical arrogance and political cowardice enable the food industry and other polluting industries to operate without sanction or oversight. 

If the war on cancer has one major battlefield it lies in the aisles of supermarkets and in the fast food outlets that feed an increasingly large segment of the population. The high fat, high protein and sugar laden diet that produces extravagant profits also generates business for the sickness industry. It is the most perverse symbiosis imaginable. An industry that encourages the consumption of a toxic diet that produces chronic disease is allowed to experiment on a population kept ignorant by the profession that is sworn to, “do no harm”.  The medical profession is criminally negligent for not translating the overwhelming weight of information regarding the prevention of disease and supporting the myth that what is needed is more “research”. We don’t need more research we need more action. Some of this action needs to be focused on reversing the ridiculous social fixation on meat eating.

In 1998 the Harvard School of Public Health published a survey of more than 51,000 American men aged 40–75, showing that men who ate the most fat (89 grams daily) had nearly twice the risk for advanced prostate disease as those who consumed the least (53 grams daily). Red meat appeared to be a greater risk factor than other high-fat foods. Senior author Professor Frank Hu, of Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, US, said: "This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death”. Premature death? Holy cow! You would think that would attract some attention.

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) recommends that people avoid processed meat entirely and limit their consumption of red meat to 500g a week. Besides you never know what is in the processed meat anyway. It was discovered this week that between 24 and 29 percent of several brands of cheap hamburger patties were actually horsemeat. This did not go down well particularly when it was also revealed that some horsemeat contaminated with a powerful carcinogen had found its way into the human food chain (this did not cause much controversy in the UK since that meat went to France). It’s not just the meat; it’s the hormones, antibiotics and other medicines given to the animals that pose a threat. Who would be so brain dead as to think that this was not a problem?

Dr. Rachel Thompson, the WCRF’s deputy head of science, said: "The study calculates that lives would be saved if people replaced red meat with healthy protein sources such as fish, poultry, nuts and legumes. We would like to see more people replacing red meat with these type of foods." So what’s new here? Nothing. Why? Cancer business is big business and prevention doesn’t generate a penny.

Like an expert magician uses distraction to keep the eye off the deception, the multi billion-dollar cancer industry keeps the focus on treatment and away from prevention. The food industry, medical science and government act in concert and the razzle-dazzle keeps the public frightened, confused, disempowered and ultimately numbed. 

We cannot expect the food business to act now anymore than we could when the executives of all the major tobacco companies swore under oath that there was no harm to smoking when their files were filled with studies that proved the opposite. We cannot expect governments to act when the food business is one of the three largest industries in the world and so crucial to the economies of nations. In a world ruled by corporate interests, money always trumps health. This sad fact is that the wealthy are becoming aware of the scam and are less likely to suffer from the game.  It is the wealthy that dine on organically grown produce and free range animals.

The Obama family eats organic food in the White House: Bill Clinton has gone vegan and increasing numbers of wealthy and educated people have changed their diets. They have cooks who prepare their food and shop for them and expense is not an issue. Most people believe that eating a healthy diet is expensive and time consuming. They will not shift their way of eating until they know otherwise and if we are to reverse the rise of cancer that must happen.

We cannot allow eating a healthy and ecologically sustainable diet become an elitist lifestyle. Too often there seems to be a reliance on celebrity endorsement to shift the course of understanding. When an actor or entertainer “comes out” and admits to being macrobiotic or vegan or simply eats some tofu, the foodie press goes crazy with praise. And while it is certainly nice that people with a high profile are seen to be health conscious, it is not among the wealthy that the most damage is being done or where the most urgent action is needed.

The rise in cancer rates (and diabetes and heart disease) is most dramatic in the third world and among the poor. It is the poor who are relying on fast foods and overly processed foods with the most damaging ingredients. Government subsidy and negligent oversight mean that food manufacturers are getting away with murder.

There is virtually no control over what goes into food except that provided by the industry. If people had a clearer idea about what they were eating, what diseases were created by their diet and how to create cheap and healthy meals as an alternative we just might get some traction. It is not an easy task but it is essential. This is why social and political advocacy of healthy food guidelines are essential. It is parents and grandparents, friends and family who will turn things around. We cannot afford to wait for governments to act. The revolution in dietary reform is really just beginning and we all have the opportunity to play our part. 


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