Getting Cancer, the Natural (Usual) Way

jisunsetatmarina2006An article in Slate yesterday by Darshak Sanghavi (pediatric cardiologist and professor at U. Mass Medical School) asks why the U.S. and Europe focus our rhetoric and resources on some uncommon and/or unproven causes of cancer rather than trying to prevent and better screen for the many natural causes of cancer.

In part, he says, it’s because of a popular (but false) motif, that “the natural world is less toxic and more healthful than the industrial one,” so that avoiding cancer, it seems, can be accomplished by buying organic, unpasteurized, and more ‘natural’ foods and cosmetics:

“Unwittingly, we’ve seriously impeded cancer prevention with this not-so-useful distinction between the natural and artificial. It’s distracted us from the uncomfortable truth that most cancers are caused by the natural environment around us. As a result, we expend great effort and ink on low-yield strategies to prevent cancer, even though the better ones lie within our grasp.”

Sanghavi talks about some ‘artificial’ sources of very few cancers (asbestos, DES, Alar, and folic acid) and a few of the most common natural causes of cancer: UV-A rays of the sun, Helicobacter pylori bacteria, Hepatitis B, the human papilloma virus, and exposure to a mold product called aflatoxin.

He ends by suggesting that we’ve been approaching cancer prevention as something within our individual control, just another consumer shopping challenge, when actually it’s vaccines, large-scale agricultural reform, and regular screening that would reduce cancer deaths:

“Our scattershot approach to preventing cancer subscribes to the cult of personal responsibility, albeit with a recent eco-friendly twist: To really help themselves, goes the thinking, people must simply take charge of their health and avoid cancer-causing, artificial products. Somewhat insidiously, we’re starting to believe that cancer mostly is prevented by informing individuals to change their consumption habits — not by proactive, broad-based public-health measures like widespread vaccination or agricultural reform..”

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