An Inconvenient Cancer Truth

Author // Matt Rushford, DC

Cancer is a term that inspires a broad range of feelings: from fear, anger, and helplessness to curiosity and determination. Cancer, as a force, has given rise to a massive infrastructure of cultural and clinical responses, and many of these are highly visible and virtually iconic. We see Lance Armstrong talking about cancer, we see children wearing colored wrist bracelets, we are asked to participate in bike rides and walka- thons for cancer research. The majority of this energy is focused on what is called cancer “prevention” and research.

In the case of breast cancer, for example, the main thrust of cancer advocacy is towards “prevention” in the form of mammograms. Question: If 100% of all women in the United States between the ages of 40 and 80 had regular mammograms, how would this affect US cancer rates?

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Answer: Not in the slightest degree, unless you include the iatrogenic factor of applying ionizing radiation to breast tissue in otherwise healthy women, in which case it could be stipulated that the rates would naturally rise. Mammograms don’t prevent cancer; they detect cancer that is already there, and probably has been for a long time.

I read a recent issue of a local women’s magazine titled, “Quest for the Cure,” about breast cancer research and fund raising. The word “cure” is defined by Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary as “course of treatment to restore health.”

“Health” is defined as “a state of optimum physical and mental well-being, not just the absence of disease or infirmity.” This would suggest that individuals seeking a cure would be not merely investigating new treatments for sick people, but seeking to enhance health and discover the cause of the disease and address those causal factors so that future generations are less likely to contract the disease.

But the magazine featured little to no discussion of things like risk factors, causes, or prevention. The report was on the development of screening and treatment options for women with cancer.

Unfortunately, women appear to be acquiring highly inconsistent beliefs about screening and cancer. A recent study of 4,000 women found that 68% believed screening prevents or reduces the risk of contracting [my emphasis] breast cancer.

It is unusual, if not outright disingenuous, that the idea of screening is being used synonymously with the idea of prevention. Screening detects disease that has already occurred, and hence, has failed to be prevented. Screening is, in a way, the opposite of prevention. It’s what we do to determine how much we have failed at prevention.

And this miscommunication is not limited to breast cancer. Another article recently published was titled, “Colon Cancer—the Number Three Cancer Killer—is Largely Preventable.” Yet the article was actually about screening technologies for colon cancer. There was no real mention or discussion about how to avoid getting colon cancer in the first place.

It has been stated that certain types of cervical and colorectal cancer can be “prevented” by screening for and removing “precancerous lesions” before they are categorized as cancer. But this is a semantical argument; the surgical removal of a potentially dangerous lesion may be helpful to a patient, but it is not preventive just because the lesion is not called cancer yet.

The American Cancer Society publishes an informational pamphlet called “Cancer Facts for Women,” which discussed several different types of cancer. This brochure begins each section with a paragraph about the type of cancer, followed by a series of bullet points under the heading, “What You Can Do.” Virtually every bullet point offered refers to screening, testing, and medical treatments for women after they already have cancer. References to causes—known dietary contributors to colon cancer, for example—are marginal and not mentioned in the “What You Can Do” sections.

One of the problems with perpetuating the focus on screening and treatment as primary preventive measures is that it gives the public the impression that, if they just follow the recommended guidelines, they will be protected. It promotes a fatalistic attitude toward serious illness, a paradigm which should be subjected to far more scrutiny than it is currently.

Screening may prevent a certain percentage of deaths from cancer, but even this theory has been questioned, as in the recent report in Lancet which found no evidence that routine mammography reduces the death rate from breast cancer. A 2006 study from the Cochrane Center in Copenhagen, Sweden, confirmed screening mammograms reduce the absolute risk of dying from breast cancer by 0.05%.

Furthermore, the potential risks of mammography are either understated or ignored completely. Many women are unaware that mammograms apply radiation, in the form of low dose x-rays, to breast tissue. All x-rays use ionizing radiation, a known carcinogen. According to the Department of Energy, a typical mammogram applies 25 times the radiation of a standard chest x-ray.

Perhaps the best reason to question the way in which cancer screening is promoted is that it does nothing to ensure that our daughters or granddaughters or great-granddaughters will be less likely to contract this disease.

In fact, despite the 3 billion dollars spent by the American Cancer Society alone since its inception in 1946, worldwide deaths from cancer are expected to rise from 6.7 million in 2002 to 10.4 million in 2020.

One possible reason for the lack of attention to authentic preventive measures in cancer research is that the medical establishment seems to believe that we are “programmed” for cancer; that cancer is a “natural” occurrence. A recent interview with a prominent member of the University of Vermont medical school teaching staff included the statement that cancer is a normal part of aging and that nothing can be done to actually prevent it. Comments like these make it easy to get the impression that, in terms of this issue, medicine has assumed an alarmingly defeatist position.

For example, the following are the primary risk factors identified by the American Cancer Society for women and breast cancer. This is the scientific wisdom gleaned from millions of dollars raised by bike marathons and fund-raising walks and pink magnetic ribbons on cars. These are the things women are being instructed to avoid; the things we are telling our daughters to avoid: 1. Being a woman. 2. Growing older.

Evidently, if we want to prevent cancer in American women, we have some serious work to do. As a matter of fact, there is a term for this type of reasoning. It is called, “blaming the victim.” And women hoping for words of wisdom about preventing ovarian cancer don‘t have much to show either. According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, here are the options for reducing the risk of this disease:

  1. Go on the pill (despite the possible known and unknown side-effects).
  2. Have a tubal ligation (surgical severing of your uterine tubes).
  3. Have a hysterectomy (surgical removal of your uterus).
  4. Have a “prophylactic oophorectomy” (surgical removal of the ovary).
  5. Have children and breastfeed (but start before you’re 25).

No mention of dietary, environmental, lifestyle, mental, or emotional factors that may be available to keep women safe. No mention of what a woman can do, outside of drugs and surgery, to prevent this disease if she is over 25 and has not yet had children. She is, presumably, to believe that the significant resources devoted to cancer research— millions of dollars over decades—have failed to discover a single link between diet, weight, exercise, mental health, social conditions, environmental factors, including toxins and pharmaceutical drugs, or quality of life on any other level, and developing cancer. Her choices are: take drugs, surgically disfigure or remove the relevant organ (let’s hope they don’t transpose this mentality to brain tumors), or start having babies.

It is interesting that this philosophy is not met with more resistance by the community. Many groups have pointed to the conflict of interest that is inherent in such strategies. It’s true that, relative to the simple lifestyle changes and conservative alternative treatments that we already know about, the fantastically expensive high-tech world of treating cancer in people who already have it offers a different level of compensation.

For example, serious questions have already been raised about the sketchy research and questionable implementation of the Gardasil® vaccine. Gardasil®, the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, is being pressed on our young daughters with a great amount of force, despite the fact that it has never been tested for longterm safety, its efficacy is unknown after 3 years and the research on the vaccine was funded entirely by the very company marketing it (Merck, the makers of Vioxx. Vioxx was withdrawn in September 2004 because it was found—after full FDA approval and 5 years on the market—to cause a significant increased risk of heart attack and stroke). If all these issues were to somehow magically disappear, Gardasil® vaccination might be included in a discussion of cancer prevention. That is, if it were effective against more than 3.4% of all HPV infections. These facts make it easy to raise questions about the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry—one of the most lucrative industries on the planet—and declarations that disease is “inevitable.”

But perhaps more germaine to the argument is the deeper issue of the unique and limited paradigm of the medical industry, one whose goal is not, nor has ever truly been, the perpetuation of health and wellness, but merely the treatment and care for disease. Understanding that these are two wholly different clinical objectives is critical to understanding the shortfalls of utilizing so exclusively the paradigm of medicine to approach the complex problem of cancer (and other degenerative and infectious diseases) in our society. To the medical mind, we get sick when we get cancer. To other minds, cancer is a manifestation of a predicating sickness. And this idea of “sickness” is not limited to the individual, but expands to encompass the local and global environment with which that individual interacts. Looking for how our diet, lifestyle, environment, air and water quality, quality of life, and other factors might contribute to getting us sick in the first place hallmarks the mindset behind authentic preventive thinking.

Going to the cause of things has never been the strong suit of medicine, but this is simply because medicine, since its inception with barber-surgeons, has always been a limited focus specialty field whose realm was, essentially, saving lives and postponing death. Medicine has always been good at this, never more so than today. But its limited field of vision becomes a liability when the subjects of prevention, wellness, and health arise. Not until we expand the framework within which we work on the problem of cancer beyond the myopic perspective of the medical paradigm will we even be asking the appropriate questions about how to respond to the problem and safeguard our future generations.

This is not to indict the medical establishment, but it is meant to hold them—and all of us—to a higher standard. That standard includes being honest and accurate when we use terms like “cure” and “prevention.” Treatment is not cure. Screening is certainly not prevention. It means being more straightforward about what screening and treatment represent: damage control. It means acknowledging that too few resources go into finding practical ways to safeguard our posterity from ever getting these diseases, and too little of the conversation focuses on this objective. It means acknowledging that, as bad as it sounds, there are people in this world who stand to lose a lot of money if an actual cause-cure relationship is discovered. This should make us very skeptical toward the propagation of fatalistic ideologies and summary dismissals of authentic prevention of disease.

Treating people who have cancer is a noble thing. But we should hold ourselves to a much higher standard when we start talking about “cures” and “prevention,” because this concerns not only our current generation, but also our progeny. What will our legacy be? I would like to challenge our community to insist upon a discussion about restoring health, what measures can be taken to avoid cancer in the first place, and how we can prevent our children and grandchildren from getting cancer.

What would cancer research look like if we held ourselves to these standards? The paradigm would focus on establishing long-term (multi-generational) solutions that are pro-active, not just preventive. This means understanding and acknowledging the difference between enhancing health and preventing disease. It means devoting resources into better understanding them both, rather than focusing mainly on expensive detection methods and risky treatments. It would mean that cancer research would earnestly investigate known vectors for cancer and known methods for preventing and treating it, even those methods which are alternative, holistic, or natural; namely, not profit-making to the medical or pharmaceutical industries. It would mean that the public education campaigns would focus on these vectors; telling us what we can really do to avoid cancer: what to eat, what to avoid, and what traditional as well as alternative therapies are worth looking into.

Some researchers believe that women can reduce their risk of contracting breast cancer by as much as 75% simply by introducing dietary and lifestyle changes, including consuming fresh, organic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; adding elements such as healthy omega-3 fatty acids, green tea, coenzyme Q, sea vegetables, and various vitamins and minerals; reducing red meat consumption, smoking, and dietary and environmental toxins; and increasing physical activity. And of course it has long been known that adding a regular regimen of chiropractic care has been shown to boost the immune system significantly.

More importantly, this discussion would bring us to the point where we could see the limitations of the prevention paradigm itself. We would encounter an opportunity to look beyond simply avoiding cancer and would expand into an exploration of how to perpetuate and enhance human health and the actualization of our potential on all levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual.

What would a cancer awareness month look like if we held ourselves to these standards? I think our grandchildren are dying to know.

Pathways Issue 19 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #19.

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