Cancer: An ‎Inevitable Stage of Life?

01/09/2014 05:36pm ET | Updated March 11, 2014
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In a recent story by George Johnson in the New York Times, "Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer," it seems that way because they often do.

Seemingly, the story suggests that because we are better at fixing things like heart disease, one needs to die of something, since as a population we are living longer. The author, in my view, has this "it's always something" perspective on cancer, making comparisons to things like the bubonic plague, smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis. There is nothing new about the fact that age is the greatest risk factor for cancer. The longer you live, the more your chances of being diagnosed with cancer increase. The American Cancer Society is celebrating its 100th birthday this year with its "More Birthdays" campaign that acknowledges more birthdays. The harsh reality is that with more birthdays comes more treated cancer.

George Johnson's story, for me, positions cancer outside of one's reach in a place of happenstance, out of our control in the high science world of laboratories, test tubes and genetics. The reality is that Johnson, seemingly by design, has overlooked the evidence relative to cancer, the environment and lifestyle (those things outside of our bodies) that not only can impact our health but also have a role in shaping genetics, not to mention cancer.

Johnson reports:

Surprisingly, only a small percentage of cancers have been traced to the thousands of synthetic chemicals that industry has added to the environment. As regulations are further tightened, cancer rates are being reduced a little more.

My question is, how on Earth would we ever be able to trace those chemicals? Today, we have more than 80,000 chemicals in the marketplace. Few of the vast number of chemicals are well characterized for their risk to human health or the environment. The National Cancer Institute reports that:

... researchers have estimated that as many as two in three cases of cancer (67 percent) are linked to some type of environmental factor, including use -- or abuse -- of tobacco, alcohol, and food, as well as exposure to radiation, infectious agents, and substances in the air, water, and soil.

Today, nearly 12 million cancer survivors are alive in the United States, at least 328,000 of whom were originally diagnosed when they were under the age of 21.

Doctors frequently cannot explain why one person develops cancer and another does not. However, research shows that particular risk factors increase the chance that a person will develop cancer (National Cancer Institute). Clearly, we as a country are doing fairly well at treating cancer, but we have not put systems into place to prevent cancer.

What we do know is that we cannot continue to abuse the planet and ourselves and not have increased risk for many health issues, including cancer.

The science is readily available for prevention. Cancer should not be an inevitable stage of life. Scientific leaders not only understand the role of environment and lifestyle, but also warn of the preventable risks to the environment and human health when it comes to cancer. Cancer is not happenstance: Most cancer is considered preventable, and while scientists can never be certain why exactly someone develops cancer, they are aware of the many factors in our lifestyles and environments associated with increased risk of cancer.