Sunday, May 03, 2009

Cancer Prevention: It’s about time

When you consider the numbers, it’s clear that this current strategy is not working. According to Statistics Canada, in the 1930s, 1 in 10 people contracted cancer. By the 1960’s it was 1 in 4. Today, that figure is 1 in 3. When non-melanoma skin cancers are added to this equation, the figure is actually 1 in 2.

According to Prevent Cancer Now (PCN), “In 2008, an estimated 166,400 Canadians - 6,500 more new cases than the year previous - heard three words that would change their lives forever: “You have cancer.” Almost 74,000 Canadians died from cancer last year - 1,100 more than in 2007.”

“As the Baby Boom generation gets older, even more Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer. But it’s not just our aging population - the incidence of many cancers in Canada, such as breast, prostate and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, are among the highest in the world. According to 2005 data from Cancer Research UK, North America has the highest percentage of deaths worldwide due to all cancers – at 23 percent. Even worse, the umbilical cord blood of every infant on Earth now contains scores of cancer-causing substances, such as pesticides, solvents, hormones and heavy metals – all commonly found in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, including breast milk,” states PCN.

It’s painfully clear. What we do to the environment, we do to ourselves - and to our children. This insanity must stop.

In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote in “Silent Spring”, “Although the search must be continued for therapeutic measures to relieve and to cure those who have already become victims of cancer, it is a disservice to humanity to hold out the hope that the solution will come suddenly in a single master stroke. It will come slowly, one step at a time. Meanwhile, as we pour our millions into research and invest all our hopes in vast programs to find cures for established cases of cancer, we are neglecting the golden opportunity to prevent, even while we seek the cure.”

What is so dramatic about Carson’s statement is that she died of breast cancer a few years after Silent Spring was written. What Carson warned us about then, and what the environmental community is increasingly indicating now. is that environmental degradation is a major cause of the current cancer epidemic.

The problem is that cancers can take 15 to 20 years to develop. Where a person is born is as important as where they were conceived, if they were breastfed, what they ate as a child, and if they lived downwind to a thousand or more airborne carcinogens.

We do not have absolute proof. What we do have is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, enough pieces to start to see the whole picture. We ignore these pieces at our peril.

With so much time and money being invested in treatment and cure, there isn’t sufficient effort being focused on prevention. It’s like we’re putting all our energy into stopping a runaway train when it would be a lot easier to simply cut the fuel to the engine.

Unfortunately, it’s big business that’s fuelling the engine. Since the 1940s, over 75,000 new chemical combinations have made their way out of the labs and into our everyday lives. In Canada, we use over 50 million kilograms of pesticides every year.

According to Dr. Samuel Epstein, author of The Politics of Cancer Revisited, “The overwhelming majority of the industrial chemicals have never been adequately tested for chronic toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic effects, let alone ecological effects, and much of the available industrial data is at best suspect.”

What is required is an extraordinary public outrage at the current state of affairs. While we all fear getting cancer, what is infinitely more frightening is the idea that it’s some random, evil thing that affects people without rhyme or reason. If what we’re doing to the environment really is the cause for the dramatic increase in cancer rates, then we can do something about it. This isn’t depressing. It’s exciting, it’s empowering and it’s about time.


Of the half-billion dollars spent in Canada on cancer research each year, less than 2% is devoted to finding the causes - and preventing - cancer. Prevent Cancer Now is a coalition of environmentalists, health care experts and cancer survivors. The Cancer Prevention Challenge is the ONLY fundraiser in Canada that focuses exclusively on primary prevention of cancer – stopping cancer before it starts. To pledge your support or for more information about cancer prevention, visit


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