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The environment's role in cancer


Just last week I passed the minimum $2,000 level in my fundraising effort that will allow me to walk in The Weekend to End Breast Cancer (September 8-9). Thanks to all of you who have contributed — the vast majority of donors are people I know from the waste management and environmental services industry. I’m now walking between five and 15 kilometres daily as preparation for the weekend walk, in which I have to walk a marathon on each day back to back Saturday and Sunday.
The topic of breast cancer became very relevant when my mother-in-law developed breast cancer and underwent a masectomy this year. The wife of one of our regular magazine columnists — who is much younger than my mother-in-law — has also undergone treatment. Cancer has taken away several friends and acquaintances of mine in recent years, too. Sometimes the outcomes are good — the spouse of one of my industry friends beat lung cancer, which is quite unusual. Other times the news is more grim: I just found out last week that the sister of my stepfather has colon cancer. She’s in her seventies but very fit and active, playing tennis all the time and involved in various causes. I hope her outcome is good also, but one never knows.
I have no doubt that every reader knows someone with cancer or who has passed away from it. For some time I’ve read “Alicia’s Story” in the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle. The past diary-like entries are still posted there, but Alicia is taking a break from the column to fight the disease, which appears to be taking over now. A very sad story about cancer interrupting the life of a lovely woman who is only in her early twenties.
Anyway, all of this leads me to want to share an interesting piece of information. I’ll tell you an interesting story in a moment, but first let me provide some context.
There’s a debate among experts as to whether cancer is caused by innate factors or the external environment (i.e., pollution).
On the one hand, I’ve read some interesting articles and viewed TV programs in recent years that suggest that cancer is to a large extent natural — a disease of aging. Simply put, we are seeing more cancers (according to some doctors and researchers) because people are living longer. In previous generations, people died of other causes before they had a chance to get cancer.
Along this line of thought, the system via which the body regenerates itself (wherein all our cells are replaced every eight years) has the consequence that sometimes cells grow out of control. We’re all getting cancer all the time, but our immune system kills off these out-of-control cells before they get a foothold. The thinking is that if we become immuno-suppressed, the cancer takes root. In this school of thought, we need to keep ourselves fit, minimize stress and eat vitamins — all to boost immunity and keep cancer at bay.
Also along this line of thought, as we age the cancer eventually gets us (if we don’t succumb to somthing else like heart disease), but progresses slowly in older people, since the metabolic rate has slowed down also. One of the proofs for this theory is that, in mice at least, when researchers turn off the genes of aging, the mice quickly develop tumors. Like a dark Darwinian joke, somehow the genes that allow us to age also suppress cancer, so you can’t have eternal youth without also getting sick.
On the other hand, there’s a school of thought that cancer is caused by environmental factors, such as various pollutants that we inhale and also imbibe in our water and (especially) our food. This concept is supported by growing rates of certain cancer among young people, especially breast cancer among women in their thirties and so on. We wouldn’t expect this if cancer was only a disease of aging. I also wonder if two other factors apply. First, the fact that there are more women in the workforce, such that the stress impacts them by a certain age. And second, by increasing fat and obesity. Women have more body fat than men, and people are getting fatter, and maybe a stressed out overweight population is more susceptible to cancer.
Or maybe that’s not the reason at all, and environmental factors really are the cause. At this point in time, I believe that both interpretations are true: i.e., that cancer is indeed a disease of aging, and also that environmental pollutants are causing additional cancers among younger people. I haven’t even mentioned smoking, which accounts for something like 30 per cent of all cancers.
Now to the tidbit of information that’s most interesting. My apologies for the long build-up, but I think this story needs the context above.
I was talking about this topic with a professional colleague the other day, and he referred to a book he read recently, a diary written by a surgeon from the American Civil War. One day the surgeon performed an autopsy on the body of a young soldier and discovered that the young man had died of cancer (not battlefield injuries). He had the body packed in ice and shipped back to his hometown university because it might be the only opportunity his medical students would ever have to witness cancer.
In other words, cancer was so rare in the 19th Century that a doctor shipped a soldier’s body home to his students for a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime view of it. Maybe this anecdote points up that doctor’s simply didn’t detect cancer very often back then, and that surely accounts for some of it. But the story is arresting, and suggests that perhaps modern pollution really does play a significant role in cancer generation.
If so, we’ll have to redouble our efforts not just to “find a cure” but to prevent cancer in the first place, by removing the cause: pollution in our environment, our air, water and food. Something I’ll be thinking about as I walk in the fundraising marathon in September.


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