Just before New Year's eve, the New York Times published an article by George Johnson exploring the incidence of cancer in prehistoric times and its implications for those of us living today.
The focus of the article was on the evidence of cancer found in the unearthed remains of prehistoric peoples. Yes, cancer has always been with us, but the important debate concerns whether or not its incidence has been constant throughout the history of humankind or has climbed dramatically since the introduction of modern diets, lifestyles, and the release of industrial toxins into the environment. You might think the answer is obvious, but it ain't necessarily so -- at least for some scientists.
Cancer has always been with us
The trigger for the Times article was an excavation of a Scythian burial mound in Russia containing the remains of a man and a woman dead almost 2700 years. According to paleopathologists (yes, there is a word for people who study diseases in the remains of the long dead), almost every single bone in the man's body was riddled with tumors. That makes him the oldest known case of metastasized prostate cancer ever found. Obviously, the man's prostate was long gone, but like in an episode of Bones, the paleopathologists noted that the bones exhibited an identifiable pattern of scars consistent with the migration of cancer cells once metastasized from the prostate. The clincher, though, was the fact that proteins extracted from the bone tested positive for prostate specific antigen markers, a strong indicator of prostate cancer.
The problem is that although the researchers once again confirmed that cancer has been with human beings from the beginning of their existence, the discovery of the bones did nothing to shed light on the more important question: have cancer rates gone up throughout human history? Have diet, lifestyle, and exposure to a toxic environment increased our chances of getting cancer? Or in the words of David Byrne and the Talking Heads, is it the "same as it ever was?"
Its incidence in ancient peoples is hard to gauge
The biggest problem scientists have in trying to answer the question at hand is that there just aren't all that many prehistoric remains to analyze to make an accurate determination. As the Times article points out, in the history of archeology, scientists have only been able to identify a mere 200 possible cancer sightings dating to prehistoric times.
But what does that actually mean?
According to estimates, there are roughly 100,000 ancient skeletons in the world's entire collection, and many of those are just skulls. For a long time archeologists only collected skulls, not the rest of the bones. And even at that, very few of the skeletons, whole or otherwise, have been studied using modern techniques. But it gets even more problematic when you consider that:
- Unless the tumor goes to the bone, it won't show up at all. If a prehistoric woman bleeds out from colorectal cancer, there will be no evidence left behind. Once the soft tissue disintegrates, there will be no evidence of that tumor in the bones that remain.
- And then again, if the cancer reaches the bone, the cancer may cause that bone to crumble and disappear, again leaving no trace.
- Another problem is that cancer tends to be associated with aging. The older you get, the more likely you are to get cancer. But in prehistoric times, people were more likely to be killed by a charging mammoth in their early thirties than by disease in their eighties. So the likelihood of getting cancer might have been the same among the Picts and Celts living in the Iron Age, but never had a chance to manifest because they died of other causes before getting cancer.
So although the numbers, when you look at remains, seems to indicate that malignancies were a "striking rarity" in ancient times, that evidence is hardly conclusive -- at least to the doubtful.
To summarize the argument:
- New disease: Cancer is a rarity in ancient remains; therefore cancer was a rarity in ancient peoples. Thus, cancer is a modern disease affected by diet, lifestyle choices (e.g., smoking) and exposure to environmental toxins.
- Old disease: There is nothing particularly modern about cancer. It was less common in ancient peoples:
- Because they died before they could get cancer.
- Any evidence would, in most cases, no longer be present in their remains.
- And when you actually work out the numbers on ancient skeletons, they're not really that much different than might be found in an equal sized sampling of modern man's skeletal remains.
- Inevitable disease: And then there is the statement by Dr. Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute, "Cancer is an inevitability the moment you create complex multicellular organisms and give the individual cells the license to proliferate."
"If we lived long enough, sooner or later we all would get cancer."
So has cancer increased in incidence or not?
All in all, Johnson's article is fascinating and well worth reading, but what does it actually tell us about cancer. Has it increased in incidence or not?
In truth, what we really learn from Dr. Johnson's article is some combination of the following:
- Just because scientists are smart, doesn't necessarily mean they have commonsense.
- It really is true that you can't see the forest for the trees.
- To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Or to put it another way, the scientists cited in Johnson's article are the same people who could never solve the nine dot puzzle. (By the way, for those who really know how to think outside the box, there are at least a dozen different solutions to this problem.) In any case, these scientists are locked in a box and can't see out of it. How so?
Quite simply, if ancient remains are too scarce and too degraded and people died too soon to provide the evidence needed, is there another source for that evidence? In other words, is there a way out of the box? And the answer is absolutely, yes -- the early part of the 20th Century. During that time period, the medical community was quite aware of cancer and better able to recognize tumors and diagnose cancers than previous doctors. Also, people born early in the 20th Century lived longer than did their prehistoric ancestors (in fact, lived (or will live) almost as long as people born today -- once they made it past childhood diseases). And record keeping was far more complete than in prehistoric times. And even better, it was during the 20th Century that many of the issues that we in the alternative health community associate with cancer came into being, including:
- Dramatically increased consumption of meat
- The shift to high consumption of processed and fast foods as a major portion of the diet
- The switch to high Omega-6 saturated diets
- Exposure to over 100,000 industrial toxins never before seen in the history of mankind released into the environment by the hundreds of thousands of tons
- Mass use of known carcinogens such as chlorine and fluoride in the public water supply
- Explosion of cigarette smoking in society after WWII
The bottom line is that, granting that cancer has always been with us, if you want to know if its incidence has dramatically increased over the years, why go back to the spotty remains of ancient peoples when you can track the plethora of evidence over the 20th Century when everything actually changed?
Cancer in the 20th Century
Forget the bones. Forget missing soft tissue. Forget dying early. Forget missed diagnosis. All of these things have only a minor impact on our ability to determine the actual incidence of cancer during the course of the 20th Century. And yet it is during the 20th Century that most of the suspect elements mentioned above became part of our lives. If cancer has gotten noticeably worse in the 20th Century, then the evidence is pretty clear that those elements play a role. If it has stayed the same or improved, then we can dismiss the alternative health POV as just another conspiracy theory.
And not surprisingly, there are two points of view when it comes to cancer over the last 100 years.
"In recent decades, many have claimed that cancer is rising because of increased use of human-made chemicals. But if chemicals were a source of health problems, one might expect that as chemical use increased around the world, there would be a measurable adverse effect on life expectancy, cancer rates, or other illnesses. Yet in developed nations, where chemical use has greatly increased, people are living longer, healthier lives."
And if that's not clear enough, they included a graph from the National Cancer Institute to drive the point home.
U.S. Cancer Mortality Age-Adjusted Cases per 100,000 Individuals
Now, that's pretty convincing! Cancer deaths clearly have not been going up in recent years; they've been going down. Kudos to medical science. Kudos to the Competitive Enterprise Institute for exposing a fraud. So much for the theory that cancer is a "modern" disease -- except for one tiny little problem. The graph starts in 1975. Why not earlier since data is available for those years?
One need go no further than the graphs found in Cancer Trends During the 20th Century, as published in the Journal of Australian College of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine for the answer. See for yourself how cancer rates evolved in Sweden during the 20th Century -- and be sure and check out what happens on each graph around the mid-70s where the National Cancer Institute graph begins:
Development of female breast cancer mortality
Mortality due to colon cancer in Sweden
Mortality due to bladder cancer in Sweden since 1956
In fact, what we see is that the incidence of all of these cancers, after years of explosive growth, peaked in the mid seventies. The bottom line is starting a graph on cancer trends in the mid-seventies amounts to cherry picking data. As Benjamin Disraeli was wont to say, "There are three kinds of lies in the world: lies, damn lies, and statistics." Selectively using cancer data from the mid-70s on amounts to all three kinds of lie at once. Clearly, we can see that although cancer is an ancient disease, its incidence and mortality have skyrocketed in the 20th Century.
And truth be told, not all cancers peaked in the mid-70s. It's just that you don't notice that when you fold all cancers together in a single graph. For example:
Lung cancer death rates in Sweden
Skin melanoma mortality in Sweden since 1912
And prostate cancer falls sort of between the two models -- showing improvement in the mid-70s, only to start rising again after a short respite.
Development of prostate cancer death rates in Sweden since 1951
And then there's the fact that since 2000, even as other cancers have begun to fade -- for reasons that have little to do with better medical care -- other cancers such as lymphatic cancer and pancreatic cancer have recently begun to explode to take their place. By the way, why did I just say that much of the improvement in mortality seen in the mid-70s had little to do with improved medical care -- even though the medical community and its vast fund raising behemoth try and convince you otherwise? Well consider:
- Much of the improvement in breast cancer incidence and mortality is the result of doctors cutting their prescriptions for hormone replacement therapy over the last several decades. At one time, Premarin was the most prescribed drug in the world. Now that numerous studies have shown that HRT can cause everything from cancer to heart attacks, its rate of prescription has fallen in half. Thus the leveling off of mortality from breast cancer (and ovarian cancer for that matter) over the last few years.
- Colon cancer mortality rates have benefited greatly from the world's new found obsession with fiber. At one time plentiful in our diets, fiber disappeared with the introduction of fast foods and processed foods. Think no further than white flour. Although white flour has been around for several thousand years, it was primarily an indulgence of the elite until the introduction of supermarkets and prepackaged processed food after World War II. Because whole wheat flour contains fats, it goes bad/rancid far more quickly than white flour. In fact, white flour can last for several years on a store shelf, whereas whole wheat flour (and anything made from it) tends to go rancid in six months. But thanks to the alternative health community's promotion of high fiber diets (that the medical community finally endorsed after years of mockery), the incidence of colon cancer finally began to level off. (And yes, earlier detection and improved surgical techniques have improved outcomes too.)
- Lung cancer incidence and mortality, of course, is directly related to cigarette smoking. In countries that have significantly cut the use of cigarettes such as the United States, the lung cancer mortality curve has begun to change dramatically. In European countries like Sweden, which have lagged behind in banning cigarettes, not so much yet. And in Asian countries, such as China, that have adopted smoking over the last few decades with a vengeance, the mortality curve is about to take an exponential turn upwards. Incidentally, cigarettes contribute to the onset of many cancers besides lung cancer, including: cancers of the lips, jaw, and throat, along with bladder cancer and pancreatic cancer.
- And sun worshippers and tanning beds have likewise contributed greatly to the sharp increase in skin cancer.
So what do we actually know about cancer?
First, we know that it's always been with us. People have been getting cancer from the earliest days of their existence (whenever that might be). Heck, most animals get cancer. Even some plants get cancer-like growths. And why not? Essentially, cancer is simply misprogrammed cells that have run amok. Every single day of your life your body produces anywhere from a few hundred to as many as 10,000 misprogrammed cells as part of normal metabolic processes. The trick is that if your immune system is healthy or not overwhelmed by too many rogue cells, it eliminates each and every one of those cells. What we call cancer results when the immune system fails to do its job and allows some of those rogue cells to survive long enough to begin to replicate and "establish a beachhead" in your body. Once the rogue cells develop a support network that allows them to feed themselves, they can start producing bio-chemicals that promote their own existence at the expense of healthy cells. That's cancer.
Thus, the potential for cancer is in each and every living creature.
We also know quite convincingly, and all nonsensical prehistoric arguments aside, that the incidence of cancer has increased dramatically over the last century. The numbers are there. The data is there. Certainly, doctors can better diagnose tumors now than 50 or 100 years ago, but that's diagnosis before death. After death when the body is opened up, any pathologist in the last century would recognize a grapefruit sized mass in the colon as cancer. The death would be recorded as cancer. Is it 100% certain? No. It's certainly possible that doctors as recently as the 1940's and 50's were totally incompetent and never noticed tumors when they performed autopsies or treated battlefield wounds when soldiers' insides lay exposed before them. It's also possible that the extra 3-7 years that people are living now as opposed to 100 years ago have made a difference. And yes, that's all that life expectancy has really increased over the last hundred years -- once you account for the decline in infant mortality, which dramatically skews the numbers. Perhaps the risk of cancer really does increase fivefold in that small handful of extra years "adults" now live versus 100 years ago. Yes, these things are possible…but not very likely. They can only be argued because as unlikely as they are, you can't prove that they're not true -- like perpetual motion.
And finally, we absolutely know that the dietary and lifestyle choices we make and our exposure to toxins affect our chances of getting cancer. Again, arguments to the contrary are like arguments for perpetual motion. How do we know this? Quite simply, cigarettes! We know for a fact that in any sample population, cigarette smokers have a far higher incidence of numerous cancers as opposed to non-smokers. Can you absolutely prove the connection (perpetual motion) between cigarettes and cancer? Nope. You can always find someone who's smoked two packs a day for 50 years and never got cancer. But any rational person knows that if you smoke heavily, your "odds" of getting cancer are dramatically higher.
And likewise, we know that certain dietary choices, chlorinated water, radon gas in our homes, and exposure to numerous toxins and xenoestrogens in our environment significantly increase our risk of cancer. It's a game of odds -- odds that we'd like to move in our favor.
And how do you change those odds?
- Minimize your exposure to toxins and foods that are likely to increase the number of misprogrammed cells in your body.
- Clean out (detox) four times a year to get rid of any toxins that will inevitably make their way into your body.
- Build up your immune system using immune boosters to maximize your body's ability to eliminate 100% of the rogue cells produced in your body.
- Have regular checkups because even if you do everything right, it's still possible that one single cell made it through your body's defenses in a weak moment and took root. Caught early, your chances of defeating the cancer through natural or medical means are good. But remember, cancer is a game of odds, not guarantees.
For more on cancer, check out: Cancer, the Big Lie. Just click below.