Cancer and the ‘real’ story


When we talk about “cancer”, many folk will either go into denial, or start drinking de-oxygenated prune juice or some similar ‘natural’ product which will melt the cancer away, like magic.  And, Oh Yes, it is expensive de-oxygenated prune juice!

However, “cancer” can be a killer, but not always.  There are many people who have had cancer and lived to tell the tale.  My dear old Mum had cancer of the womb and ended up having a hysterectomy before she was 50 years of age.  She was 94 when she died of pneumonia, so I think we can safely say the operation was a success!

The treatment for cancer is classically surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  Much depends upon the type of cancer, and how long it has been growing, and how far it has spread.  This can be a single modality, or combined.  There is also much work being done with the immune system and cancers, with a vaccine for some types of cancer on the horizon.

However, some of these cancer fears and phobias are not necessarily based on true facts.  Try this one – an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows the number of new cancer cases grew from 66,000 in 1991 to 114,000 in 2009 and about 121,000 Australians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year.

There you are!  Cancer rates almost double!  Why?  Is it Aussie pies?  Or heaven help me – I hope it’s not the beer!

Now back to some real science/mathematics/statistics: the increase in the number of cancer diagnoses is partly explained by the increasing size of the ageing population.  Other factors had contributed to the apparent increase as well.  Wider availability of testing and screening had played a role.  In other words, we were getting more clever with our ‘looking’, so obviously found more.  This, of course, does not mean that the death rates from cancer are significantly greater.  Of the prostate cancer diagnoses for example, the vast majority of males will die with the condition, and not from the condition!

Now I often get asked whether I take multivitamins or magic herbs or other additional dietary fad compounds.  I don’t!  I want you to think critically for a moment, it is very difficult to ‘prove’ that by taking de-oxygenated prune juice or similar items, that ‘something’ (usually cancer) does not happen.  Even more outrageous are the claims that some herb, poppy or whatnot can actually ‘cure’ cancers.  Is it all just poppycock?  Dr. Clifton of the Australian CSIRO would say so.  Results of a 15+ year study in Australia were presented at the CSIRO Prospects for Cancer Prevention Symposium.  The findings emerged from the Cancer Council’s Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study, an ongoing research project involving 42,000 Australians who have been monitored since 1990.

Looking at the dietary habits and the cancer connection, Dr Peter Clifton, director of the CSIRO’s Nutrition Clinic, said there was “zero evidence” that eating fruit and vegetables could protect against cancer.  The nutritionists and the healthy eating proponents were shattered.  However, this to me is a much more compelling argument than something that comes from folklore, or the lady next door who swears by it.  (BTW, sales of de-oxygenated prune juice have taken a nose-dive recently.)

To be able to prove or disprove, medical science looks at a large group, or population, and compare the cancer experience with another similar large group or population.  Ideally, the two groups are matched for age/sex/ethnicity/working environment, location, etc.  You get no worthwhile results comparing Welsh coalminers with urban Africans, for example, to go to extremes.  That is real apples and oranges.

Dr Clifton looked at the results from a study of 42,000 adults.  What the survey did show was that the three prime risk factors as far as predicting cancers were concerned were identified as obesity, excess alcohol and smoking.

Staying within a healthy body weight range was found to be more important than following particular nutritional guidelines.  This means a non-smoking thin person who does not eat enough fruit and vegetables would have a lower risk of developing cancer than an overweight non-smoker who eats the recommended daily amount of fruit and five colors of vegetables.