The 30-Year War
by Linda Wallace
April 10, 2004
When President Richard Nixon
declared war on cancer 30 years ago, expectations were high
that, given sufficient resources, medical researchers could
effectively discover ways to conquer this group of diseases.
Today, three decades later, the cancer conundrum still
resists easy solutions; cancer continues to plague an aging
America. While we now know a great deal about lowering your
risk of cancer, victory against cancer continues to elude
Aging and Cancer
The aging of America is a key reason why cancer rates
continue to persist at high levels. An older America that
lives in a world saturated with chemicals and stress gets
Researchers have found good cause to believe that as we age
the genes which regulate our cells are subject to
significant changes that make them more liable to give birth
to cancerous growths.
In an investigation of cellular reproduction, scientists at
the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found
that middle-aged cells are subject to more than 200 times
the cancer-prone, destructive changes than younger cells
These researchers theorize that these molecular changes play
a primary role in causing four out of five cancers to occur
in people over the age of 55.
Environment and Cancer
America's love affair with the automobile also fosters many
new cases of cancer.
If you want to know the extent of the cancer risk in your
community linked to vehicular air pollution, count the cars
and trucks that traverse your local streets, say researchers
at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in
According to a study these scientists recently performed at
a tollbooth at Baltimore's Harbor Tunnel, the amount of
carcinogens you inhale goes up and down with the traffic.
The lowest levels of automobile-related airborne carcinogens
occur in the middle of the night, when streets are deserted.
The most destructive pollutants fill the air at rush hour (Jrnl
of the Air & Waste Management Assoc 6/03).
" Mobile source emissions [from cars and trucks] present a
unique public health threat," warns Timothy Buckley, PhD,
professor of environmental health sciences at Hopkins.
Dr. Buckley and his colleagues measured the air levels of
pollutants given off by vehicular traffic that included
corrosive substances called particle-bound polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene and butadiene. Not
surprisingly, the larger the vehicle that goes past you, the
more intense the pollution you can expect to experience. The
Hopkins study found that buses, tractor-trailers and motor
homes give off about nine times more benzene, 32 times more
butadiene and 60 times more PAHs than smaller cars.
The source of these carcinogens: the diesel engines that
power most oversized vehicles.
Consequently, people who live in traffic-jammed cities and
suburbs are almost certainly at increased risk of cancer. "
In Baltimore's urban communities as with many other US
cities, many people live in close proximity to busy
streets," points out Dr. Buckley. For future reductions in
cancer risk, he and his fellow researchers believe that
exposure to traffic pollution should be used "for evaluating
exposure, risk and control strategies in these urban
In lowering the risk of cancer, researchers have also
uncovered great promise in the use of supplementary
antioxidants like vitamins C and E as well as
arabinogalactan 6. Arabinogalactan is a polysaccharide (long
chained molecule) taken from the larch tree. Studies show it
may boost immune response and thereby enhance the
immunological resistance to cancer (Biochem Biophy Res
Plus, new research increasingly points to ways in which
dietary and supplementary antioxidants support the body's
anti-cancer efforts. In a study of almost thirty thousand
Finnish men (the Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer
Prevention Study), scientists found that those who consumed
more vitamin E lowered their chances of prostate cancer by
up to fifty-three percent (Amer Assoc Cancer Res[AACR],
Annual Meeting, 3/27/04, abstract 1096). Meanwhile, a study
in Texas found that a form of vitamin E called alpha
tocopherol can also lower the chances of bladder cancer (AACR,
abstrat 3921). The best food sources of this kind of vitamin
E include almonds, spinach, mustard greens, green and red
peppers and sunflower seeds.
Weight Increase Increases Cancer Risk
Many factors in the modern environment contribute to
continually rising cancer rates. Aside from an aging
population and a growing number of pollutants from cars,
trucks and buses, scientists who study our lifestyle habits
believe that the significant increase in people who are
overweight and obese has also boosted the US cancer risk.
When you gain weight and add more fat cells to your body,
your body's production of cells linked to inflammation may
also increase. The chemicals secreted by those cells (and
which then circulate throughout your body) are believed to
inflame your chances of cancer; fat cells produce proteins
called cytokines that are linked to this inflammatory
A 16-year study that carefully analyzed the medical records
of about 900,000 Americans found that overweight people
suffered and died more often from a wide variety of cancers,
including colon cancer and cancers of the liver, rectum,
gallbladder, pancreas, kidney and esophagus, as well as
multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NEJM 4/23/04).
According to this study, the more you weigh, the more you
risk cancer. The researchers discovered that the heaviest
men died 52% more often of cancer. The heaviest women
suffered an even greater toll. They succumbed to a startling
62% increase in their risk of dying from cancer. Obesity
seems to boost the chances that certain organs will turn
cancerous. Men who are extremely overweight run their
greatest risk of dying from stomach or prostate cancer. On
the other hand, overweight women run the most deadly risk of
cancers of the uterus, cervix, ovary and breast.
During the global epidemic of obesity, researchers are
finding that the United States is not the only part of the
world which is proving that growing waistlines may lead to a
growing cancer problem. While about half of American
citizens are now overweight, the rest of the world is also
gaining weight quickly (though not as quickly as the US
The World Health Organization (WHO) has discovered that
today about a billion people worldwide are overweight, while
300 million are overweight enough to be labeled obese. Soon,
scientists reason from current trends, the US may no longer
be the obesity champ.
Kids Gaining Weight
For instance, the United States has experienced a troubling
increase in the rate of obesity among teens. It now tops one
out of ten and continues to climb. But in a place like
Thailand, which traditionally has not had a weight problem,
the rate of obesity in five- to twelve-year-olds has jumped
from about 12% to about 16% in the last two years.
As a result, the worldwide obesity epidemic may lead to an
even more troubling cancer epidemic. For example, Swedish
research published in Cancer Causes and Control (1/01) found
that Swedes who are seriously overweight now face a
significantly greater cancer risk.
This study, which involved almost 30,000 obese Swedes over a
30-year period, found that those who weighed the most were
33% more likely to suffer cancer than the rest of the
country's population. In that country, being overweight was
found to lift your chances most often of endometrial cancer
and cancers of the brain, ovary, bladder, pancreas, cervix,
gallbladder and colon.
Scientists now believe that most cancer risk can be
attributed to lifestyle. Dennis Savaiano, PhD, dean of the
School of Consumer and Family Sciences at Purdue, notes
that, "...one-third of cancers...are related to smoking,
one-third to poor diet and lack of exercise and one-third to
genetic or other factors."
So if you lose weight, don't smoke, exercise, and eat plenty
of fruits and vegetables, you can count yourself among the
foot soldiers in the war against cancer. Neglect them, and
you may end up a casualty.