Friday, September 2, 2011

A Wake-Up Call About Cancer

When two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nick Kristof writes, I pay attention. He's written on a wide variety of topics, mainly focusing on social issues and human rights abuses, and won his Pulitzers reporting on Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Darfur fifteen years later. Recently, his on-the-ground reporting from the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond were indispensable to those seeking accurate information. Needless to say, when he reported on a new report from the President's Cancer Panel, I was all ears.

The President's Cancer Panel is a three-person committee appointed by the US president, which publishes annual reports on the state of cancer treatment and research in the US. Their new report, which Kristof reported on, but is not yet publicly available, is strongly critical of the US government for its lack of regulation and testing of the thousands of chemicals to which Americans are exposed every day.

While naturopathic doctors (and some MDs as well) have been concerned about chemical exposures for some time, the mainstream medical community has been reluctant to adopt a strong stance on the topic, and so this report represents a potentially landmark change in the way we think about preventing cancer. While cancer screening has become a routine part of medical care in the US, in the form of mammograms, colonoscopies, etc., this report suggests we push the cancer prevention mark even further back, back to the factors that cause the formation of cancer cells in the first place. While screening exams have increased survival rates by helping to find cancerous growths early on, when they are still very treatable, any oncologist worth his salt will tell you that the majority of diagnosed cancers, even those caught early, had been growing for years before they were found. This is why, for example, an exposure to asbestos during World War II may not result in diagnosable mesothelioma until the 1990's or beyond.

This new report suggests that we be more aware of preventing cancer before it starts, by avoiding chemical exposures that cause the gene mutations that lead to cancer. Some may read this and be intimidated, scared even, to know that the world around them is awash in potentially cancer-causing compounds. While this is true, it's also true that there are solutions to the problem. One important solution is that the government be much more forceful about the testing and regulation of the chemicals that it's citizens come into contact with. Initiatives are already underway to ensure this, and this report is likely to bolster such efforts.

Additionally, however, there are steps that we as individuals can take to reduce our chemical exposure. Some of the steps suggested in Kristof's article are simple, such as eating food grown without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers, drinking filtered water, and taking steps to prevent tracking chemicals into the house that one may have been exposed to at work. He also suggests some websites that help consumers find 'safe' products. At the very least, we should all be taking these simple steps towards cancer prevention in our daily lives.

This report is potentially game-changing because it readjusts the goal-line for cancer prevention. Currently, we work to find cancer when it is small and treatable. This new report suggests that we do more to stop cancer from forming in the first place. This is also a landmark report because many of these compounds have health effects extending far beyond cancer, to include neurological effects and endocrine effects, among others. However, all of that is still further down the road from where we are now. If you're interested in taking stronger steps towards preventing cancer now, I recommend finding a naturopathic physician in your area, as NDs are trained in active prevention of disease, including cancer. Many naturopathic physicians are members of the AANP, and can be found through their website, but many others are members of the OncANP, an organization of naturopathic physicians specifically devoted to the study of cancer.