Cancer and Its Prevention

The New York Times just finished a five part series called Preventing Cancer. In it, they review some common assumptions that people have about the causes of cancer and means of preventing it. Each of the five articles deals with a different potential cause. I’ve summarized the articles here, but I encourage you to read the articles. They help illustrate why epidemiology research can be so difficult, and why it’s necessary to look at medical discoveries carefully.

Part 1: Diet
The article focuses on the effects of fiber and reports that there is little—almost no—evidence to support the idea that a proper diet can help prevent cancer. A good diet won’t hurt, however, and does help prevent conditions like heart disease.

Part 2: Exercise
Again, there is little evidence that exercise can help prevent cancer. There is some evidence, however, suggesting it might be beneficial in colon and breast cancer. As with following a healthful diet, exercise has other benefits that make it worth doing anyway.

Part 3: Stress
Stress doesn’t appear to influence the development of cancer either. This article does talk about some new research suggesting that cancer tricks the immune system into leaving it alone.

Part 4: Toxins in the Environment
Once more, a connection that seem like common sense is difficult to find.

Part 5: Genes
The study of cancer genetics actually has led to advances in the treatment of cancer, if not its prevention. The result is that cancer may become a disease that a person lives with (and for which a person consumes pills) for years. The situation is likened to that of AIDS nowadays.

I wish they could have expanded on the cancer genetics, but given space constraints and the interests of most readers, I understand why they didn’t. I suspect that I’ll make that a topic of personal study later on.

This post refers to:

Kolata, Gina. “Which of These Foods Will Stop Cancer? (Not So Fast).New York Times. September 27, 2005.

Kolata, Gina. “But Will It Stop Cancer?New York Times. November 1, 2005.

Kolata, Gina. “Is There a Link Between Stress and Cancer?New York Times. November 29, 2005.

Kolata, Gina. “Environment and Cancer: The Links Are Elusive.” New York Times. December 13, 2005.

Kolata, Gina. “Slowly, Cancer Genes Tender Their Secrets.New York Times. December 27, 2005.

2 thoughts on “Cancer and Its Prevention

  1. I was reading an Esquire’s Best and Brightest issue an article on Paul Ewald, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Louisville.

    He studies the evolution of infections, viruses and pathogens. And he believes that most diseases start with infections, including cancer. And most of the science, medical and health community laughs at him, or worse. As far as genes, he thinks it’s a look for a quick fix, and maybe even a red herring. At most, there may be genes that make us susceptible to infection.

    If you like, I could e-mail you this article.


  2. Hmm… I do not have a copy of this article, but would be interested in one.

    It is possible that cancer starts by infection, and there are certain cancers that do start because of viral infection. I’m not sure what the mechanism of cancer development is after infection, though, or how many of these viruses are involved in genome modification.

    I don’t think that most people inherit many cancer genes. However, the evidence does seem to suggest that it’s progression is caused by a series of genetic mutations, with the key mutations often being mutations in DNA repair proteins.


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