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LIFESPANS

By NICOLAS MARTIN

LiveGT ro LOnger Healthier


PRACTICAL WAYS

We humans have an understandable inclination to become shrill when discussing matters of health and death. Even a mild-mannered and sensible individual can be driven to frenzy and foolishness when confronted with pain, disability, or mortality. With all its imperfections we want to hang on to life, which seems pretty good compared to the alternatives.

THERE IS A GREAT DANGER, though, in

raising our voices. When it happens we may allow fear to replace rational thought. And sometimes we lose track of the very tools which can save us from harm. Occasionally, we even magnify the damage we intended to prevent. When it comes to cancer, the voices have gotten very loud. In recent years we have been subjected to a chorus of horror stories which have caused us to lose track of scientific realities. This appalling disease has become the focus of a mass hysteria almost as dangerous as cancer it-

self. Repeatedly we are told of the hazards of modern life and the coming cancer epidemic which our work and lifestyles will produce. The nightly news parrots a vision of Americans held hostage to a world of increasing suffering and death caused by an industrial society gone berserk. Let us retreat for just a moment and examine the evidence regarding cancer. What proof is there to support the "doom 'n' gloom" view? What do the scientists believe who perform cancer experiments and collect data on disease and death? Do the available facts support the pessimistic view we usually encounter? According to official statistics, the incidence of most types of cancers has been stable or declining over the past thirty years, which may seem astonishing to a public accustomed to hearing only bad news. The evidence is confirmed by the influential cancer researcher Richard Peto of the University of Oxford, who notes that "there is, contrary to what most people imagine, no evidence of any generalized increase in cancer rates in the United States ... " In the case of certain cancers, like that of the stomach and cervix, the declines in death rates have been dramatic. Dr, Peto suggests that these declines may be due to better food preservation and improved hygiene rather than to medical advances. It is true that total cancer deaths are much higher now than at the beginning of this century, which has led to the mistaken impression that cancer is a modern disease. In reality, it is a disease related to aging._ In earlier times most people just didn't live long enough to develop cancer. We have profited from the eradication of infectious diseases and now have the dubious honor of contracting the diseases of old age: cancer and heart disease. Where 80 years ago an American might have expected to die at age 50 of pneumonia or tuberculosis, he might now live to an advanced age where cancer is biologically more likely. Cancer among young people is as uncommon today as it was at the turn of the century. An American born in 1900 had a life expectancy of less than 50 years, compared to about 75 years today. Those extra 25 years are essential to the formation of many cancers, which take decades to develop. The statistics show that each of us has roughly the same likelihood of getting cancer at any specific age as we would have in 1900. The much-touted cancer epidemic is a myth. While there may be no general cancer epidemic, there certainly is an epidemic related to cigarette smoking. Since World War II, the number of annual cancer deaths due to smoking has almost doubled. In 1978, 85,000 Americans died Please turn page

LIFESPANS Continued
from lung cancer caused by cigarette smoke. Another 40,000 people died from other cancers probably caused by smoking. Thus, about one-third of all American cancer deaths are related to cigarettes, and the cigarette-related cancer toll is increasing by about 4,000 deaths annually. This dramatic increase in smoking-related mortality accounts for the overall increase in American cancer deaths, and it explains why most people think we are in the midst of a cancer epidemic. The facts are clear, there is no cancer epidemic except that which is caused by smoking. Cancer remains a critical and frustrating problem, but it has gotten slightly better, not worse. We can rest a bit more comfortably knowing that cancer is not growing completely out of control, but there are still about 200,000 annual cancer deaths unrelated to smoking. We have been told that this makes America "number one in cancer," and that our predicament is caused by the use of synthetic materials and increased pollution. Government officials, broadcasters, and other nonscientists have complained loudly that progress is killing us. They say that the affluence which improves our comfort supposedly reduces our safety, and they propose new habits and laws to protect us. Some even recommend abolishing the very system which has produced such affluence. However, before we kill the golden goose it might be wise to consult the cancer specialists, who tell a completely different story. If we take the time, we will learn that scientists rarely support the idea that modern society is especially hazardous. On the contrary, most scientists agree with famous researcher and author Lewis Thomas that, "It is extraordinary that we have just now become convinced of our bad health, our constant jeopardy of disease and death ... when the facts should be telling us the opposite." The data show that an American living today has a better chance for good health and a long life than at any time in history. Progress has made life far healthier, not more hazardous. If modern living does not cause cancer, what does? Scientists answer this question delicately. They tend not to engage in public debates or make rash statements. At the same time, research into the causes of cancer is making it possible to make some educated guesses. Richard Peto has constructed the following chart to indicate the best estimate of the causes of cancer mortality. It demonstrates the profound difference between what the average person has been led to believe and what science has proven.

Estimate of the proportions of cancer deaths that will be found to be attributable to various factors
Diet Tobacco Infective processes Occupation Natural radiation and sunlight Alcohol Pollution Sexual behavior Medicine and med ical procedures Food additives Industrial Products
150 100 188 100 100 100 100 417

35% 30% 10% 4% 3% 3% 2% 1% 1% less than 1% less than 1%


?

Unknown

Source: Richard Peto, "Why Cancer?," The Resourceful Earth, ed. Simon, J.L. , Kahn, H. , Basil Blackwell Inc. (1984) .

Note: The Diet category includes eating habits and consumption of specific foods which increase cancer risk, such as pickled or charcoaled foods . Infective processes refers to cancers related to diseases such as hepatitis or AIDS.

BESTWAYS June 1985

The great percentage of cancer deaths, according to Dr. Peto, are caused by factors which are unrelated to modern technology. That is why most cancers have neitht:r diminished nor increased in recent years, and why scientists are increasingly investigating natural environmental and dietary causes of cancer. These are the major factors in most cancers. Far from "number one," America is well down the list in cancer mortality. Twenty-three industrialized countries have higher cancer mortality rates than the United States, including Luxembourg, Poland, and England. Eleven advanced societies have lower cancer mortality than the U.S., including Japan, Norway, and Israel. Disturbingly, American blacks have much higher cancer mortality than whites, but this is usually the case with lower income groups in any society, regardless of race. Among other reasons, the poor are more likely to smoke cigarettes and have inferior diets.

v Do not smoke v A void alcoholic drinks or


mouthwashes

v Eat foods high in nutrients like


beta carotene and Vitamin C

v Minimize exposure to sunlight v Maintain good personal


hygiene

v A void radiation exposure


unless medically essential

By adhering to these few guidelines it is possible to reduce the cancer risk by onethird and probably much more. It is a straightforward way to guarantee yourself better health and a longer lifespan. Otherwise, the best policy is to enjoy living as much as possible and feel thankful for being born in an age of such incredible abundance. We might not yet have immortality, but we do have opportunities for achievement and comfort about which our ancestors could only dream.

''Scientists are confident that we can avoid a large number of cancers.''


It is still very difficult to cure any of the common deadly cancers. The best and most optimistic answer recommends prevention. We must be able to take trustworthy scientific data and apply it to real life. We can eliminate one-third of all cancers by stopping smoking. Scientists are confident that we can avoid an even larger number of cancers by reducing dietary fats, and by identifying and avoiding natural carcinogens in foods, such as aldehydes in meat, and aflatoxin in plants. By reducing viral diseases, such as hepatitis, and by avoiding medical and natural radiation, it may be possible to reduce cancer even further. After that, we must come to grips with the undesirable effects of man-made chemicals and pollutants, which may cause up to five percent of cancer death. The solution to cancer will come not through fear and threats but from the diligent work of scientists. If we can avoid the instinct for hysteria and hasty solutions we will succeed in the end. There is every reason to be hopeful and to expect scientific breakthroughs in the near future. In the meantime there are several simple and prudent measures which can reduce the risk of cancer today.

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BESTWAYS June 1985 9

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