Commentary: Cancer in the commentariat

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Monday was World Cancer Day, and for all those who have lost loved ones to this modern scourge, my deepest sympathies. Having been through that nightmare several times myself, it is indeed a difficult and debilitating experience.

Which makes cancer prevention so critical. Medical science still doesn’t have a cure—although certain cancers are now associated with highly optimistic long-term survival rates—so if there are ways to forestall the incidence of cancer, that needs to be a public health priority.

It’s too bad that anti-industry mouthpieces like Dr. Neal Barnard get to share the stage with legitimate scientists on this occasion, because their advice is far afield from what actual authorities suggest.

Barnard, for those who might be unfamiliar, is a medical doctor who’s the face of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine—which has hardly any physicians among its membership and has little, if anything, to do with the practice of medicine. PCRM is basically a shill for the extreme vegan agenda, in which all animal foods are toxic, all animal husbandry abusive and all use of animal products abhorrent.

For all of the group’s holier-than-thou rhetoric about the purity of their cause, Barnard himself is no stranger to the cable TV’s informercial circuit, showing up in his ubiquitous white lab coat to plug some weight-loss “miracle” that—surprise!—is based on eliminating meat from your diet, usually appearing with a second-tier “celebrity” trying to resurrect her career, if not her bank account.

Here’s how Barnard begins his World Cancer Day rant (titled, “How meat can be murder”—sound familiar?), which appeared on the website of Britain’s The Independent newspaper:

“When you consider the efforts to fight cancer, the image that most readily springs to mind might be the graphic warning labels added to cigarette packets sold in the UK, which have helped curb smoking and its associated health risks.

“Similar warnings should be placed on meat and dairy products [as] meat and dairy products have the same hazards as cigarette smoking, including increased risks of strokes, heart disease and cancer.”

Barnard acknowledges that the World Health Organization lists dietary factors as causative agents in only about 20% to 30% of all cancers. Given that, what should be Priority No. 1 for consumers concerned about preventing this often deadly disease?

“Processed meat, such as bacon, sausage, ham and the like, is so strongly linked with bowel cancer that no one should ever eat it,” Barnard stated.

Really? That’s the most important cancer prevention step people should take?

No, not really.

Here’s what the World Health Organization actually discusses as its top six priorities in terms of cancer prevention—in order of importance:

  1. Tobacco use, considered the “single greatest avoidable risk factor for cancer mortality worldwide”
  2. 2.     Physical inactivity, dietary factors: “There is a link between overweight and obesity to many types of cancer, such as esophagus, colorectum, breast, endometrium and kidney.”
  3. Alcohol use, considered “a risk factor for many cancer types including cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colorectum and breast”
  4. Infections, responsible for 22% of cancer deaths in the developing world—viral hepatitis B and C cause liver cancer; the human PPV virus causes cervical cancer; the bacteria H. pylori increases the risk of stomach cancer
  5. Environmental pollution: Air, water and soil with carcinogenic chemicals account for up to 4% of all cancers, with occupational carcinogens causing significant numbers of leukemia and lung cancer
  6. Radiation, including UV rays, which are known skin carcinogens, and exposure to radon gas from soil and building materials, which is estimated to cause between 3% and 14% of all lung cancers

Obesity is noted as a key dietary factor, but one that has little connection to meat consumption.

Furthermore, Cancer Research UK, which was founded over a century ago and is currently the funding source for the majority of the Great Britain’s ongoing cancer research, also sticks to the facts, rather than a warped agenda focused on negativity toward animal foods. So while the group does recommend “a healthy, balanced diet that is high in fiber, fruit and vegetables and low in red and processed meats,” its latest annual report noted that of the UK’s 100,000 cancers a year caused by “lifestyle factors,” more than three-quarters are directly related to smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity, the latter of which is decidedly not due to meat-eating.

(Per capita red meat consumption has declined significantly everywhere in the developed world over the last 30 years, while obesity rates in those same countries have skyrocketed. Meat causes obesity? Don’t think so.)

Here’s one last nugget from Cancer Research UK that is critical to understanding the emergence of cancer as a particular affliction of the modern age:

“All cancers develop because something has gone wrong with one or more of the genes in a cell. But most of these gene changes happen during our lives. They happen as we get older or because of something we are exposed to, such as cigarette smoke or sunlight.

“Remember: Cancer is most common in people over the age of 60 and is rare in young people.”

Indeed, cancer is truly a disease “caused,” if you will, by the increasing lifespans of us 21st century humans. For well over 20,000 years, humanity subsisted principally on animal foods, and for most of that time, it was dried, smoked and salted meats allowed primitive peoples to survive the long, cold winters when fresh fruits and vegetables were non-existent.

And guess what? Nobody died of cancer, no matter how much “processed meat” they ate.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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