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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What's your risk of dying of cancer?

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The Numbers Show a Cancer Death Decline ...
But There's More to the Story

    The number of people dying from cancer has dropped drastically, at least according to new reports from the American Cancer Society.

    Their numbers show a drop in mortality rates by 23 percent for men and 15 percent for women as compared with numbers 20 years ago. Overall, death rates have fallen for the four most common cancers: lung, colon, breast, and prostate.

    Rates refer to number of cancer deaths per thousand people. If 10 people per thousand were dying from the disease in 1990 and 8 people per thousand were dying in 2010, the decline from 10 to 8 would be a 20 percent decline.

Continued below. . .

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    More specific reports show death rates from cancer went down by 1.8 percent (i.e. per hundred people) for men and 1.6 percent for women between 2004 and 2008. Data for the reports comes from the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    The research also shows annual death rates for two minority groups — black men and Hispanic men — dropped most dramatically, at 2.4 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively.

    Childhood cancer rates have also improved, with the five-year survival rate up to 83 percent (it was only 58 percent in the mid-1970s). From what I can learn, this is because of great success at treating leukemia, the most common type of childhood cancer. But please note that the percentage of children getting leukemia is actually going up. We're fortunate this disease is now treatable.

    Overall, cancer is the #2 cause of death among children above the age of one, only exceeded by accidents. This is a tragic fact. My guess is it's due to the massive proliferation of untested chemicals and our unhealthy diets.

    But having said all this, I put little faith in the official count of who died from cancer and who didn't. Generally, cancer patients die of an infection such as pneumonia, or of heart failure — brought on by multiple rounds of chemotherapy that shatter the immune system, exhaust the patients, and leave them vulnerable to death from some cause other than cancer. Doctors don't count these deaths as cancer fatalities. So the statistics for cancer deaths are essentially meaningless.

    Why the decline in officially-measured cancer death rates? The American Cancer Society attributes the improved numbers to early detection and treatment.

    Yet, this can't be the whole story. After all, prostate cancer screening is no longer even recommended. According to the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), prostate cancer screening provided no reduction in mortality.

    We should also note that less common cancers are actually on the rise. These include cancers of the pancreas, liver, kidney, esophagus, thyroid, and skin. Experts don't know the reason for the increase, but a few point their fingers at the obesity epidemic.

"More than a million deaths averted"

    That's according to Dr. Ahmedin Jemal, coauthor of the study that shows a decline in cancer. He was the first to cite early detection and treatment as an explanation for the reduction in deaths. He also cited improvements in cancer prevention, but at the same time pointed out that cancer deaths overall are bound to go up because of our aging, ever-growing population.

    Jemal went on to say the best way to overcome these disparities is to expand medical centers, put more doctors in place, and energize the health sector. That way, the medical professionals can apply what they know to all segments of the population.

    At the same time, Jemal — and most of mainstream medicine, like him — seems more focused on treating the symptoms of cancer on a massive level … instead of actively working to stop cancer from starting in the first place.

The problem with cancer statistics

    Most people read cancer statistics and assume cancer is evenly spread throughout a population. But that's not true. Look at breast cancer in England and Wales. According to a report from several years ago, breast cancer in women over 45 who lived in Leicestershire was 20% higher than the national average. Yet, in Cumberland it was 20% lower than the average. Oddly, Cumberland women were 50% more likely than average to have malignant melanomas, yet nearby in Durham, incidence was 30% below average.

    How do you account for all the variation? It's pretty simple. It's practically positive proof that cancer extends far beyond genes into diet, lifestyle, and environmental factors.

    Wouldn't you agree then, that interventions should be more focused on these areas than in adding more medical centers to the world?

    The problem with cancer statistics is that they get everybody excited about facts that may not matter in the grand scheme of things. You see, there are a number of ways to parse the numbers, and mainstream medicine tends to cook the figures to make itself look good.

    I can easily believe the absolute number of lung cancer deaths is down because of the decline in smoking. Deaths from breast cancer went down massively when women found out hormone replacement therapy was a dangerous treatment, and stopped doing it. The reduction in new breast cancer cases was swift and drastic following this discovery.

    And I do know colonoscopy screening is touted as a great success and doctors are catching a huge number of colon polyps before they become tumors.

    The survival rate is even pretty good for more developed cases of colon cancer, those where a portion of the colon has to be removed by surgery. But I also have to tell you that life can be unpleasant following the operation.

    When it comes to prostate cancer, I'd be suspicious that there's been any real progress. Aggressive screening has led to the discovery of a great many more prostate tumors than in the old days, but most of those tumors would have remained undiscovered (and harmless — part of the reason these screenings are going out of vogue). The old saying is "Most men die WITH prostate cancer, not OF it."

    If a man over 65 has a small prostate tumor, chances are pretty good he'll die years later of some other cause. 30 years ago those little tumors weren't even diagnosed. Nowadays they're found, treated (usually over-treated) and the medical statisticians claim they've "saved a life."

    For early-stage prostate cancer, total removal of the prostate is said to be nearly 100% successful at preventing cancer death. But the quality of life is low following prostatectomy, and in my opinion most or all of these early-stage cancers can be cured by alternative treatments, without surgery.

    The underlying problem here is that as cancer rates improve slightly, everybody gets excited about early detection and surgical or drug intervention but little progress is made at prevention. And of course nondrug, nonsurgical alternatives are largely ignored although they could really knock down cancer rates.

Your health is in your hands

    The American Cancer Society itself admits that at least 25 percent of total cancer deaths can be prevented because they relate to lifestyle issues: tobacco use, being overweight, lack of exercise, and poor nutrition. I would guess even more could be prevented if we paid more attention to environment and cultural issues.

    Cancer remains an extraordinary problem. In North America and Western Europe alone, it's the equivalent of eight fully-loaded jumbo 747s crashing every day with no survivors. It's only going to get worse because the population is aging, and the risk of cancer rises sharply with age.

    Health officials and individuals at risk should focus more on why cancers develop in the first place. This means examining everything about the way we live, from the food we eat, to the sources of our food, to the government subsidies that promote certain foods over others. And instead of looking the other way, they should also focus more on toxins in our soil, chemicals in our homes, and all the cultural trends that promote sitting the whole day through and never getting off our hind ends.

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