During President Obama’s final State of the Union address, he called for a medical “moonshot” – a renewed mission to find a cure for cancer. While his noble call to action is commendable, it’s not new. Former President Nixon issued a similar charge in 1971 when he signed the National Cancer Act into law, initiating “the War on Cancer.”
Both Presidents Nixon and Obama promised increased funding to fuel cancer research, with today’s focus centering on cancer control, early detection, and immunotherapy treatments — all worthy investments. But I was hoping for a battle cry for prevention.
Surveying the battleground
From 1975 through 2012, cancer death rates declined continuously; however, cancer is the leading cause of death for much of the U.S. population. Plus, the incidence and death rates are increasing for several cancer types, including liver and pancreas. And sadly, over the same time period, cancer incidence rates have increased in children and adolescents by 0.6% per year. Perhaps this statistic explains why I’ve noticed a growing number of billboards for children’s cancer treatment centers across the country.
When I think about it, “the war on cancer” in medicine seems akin to the war on pests and weeds in agriculture: we diagnose the problem, then blast it (with all good intentions) with an arsenal of weapons.
However, I’ve noticed that the smartest doctors and farmers seek cures by asking, What caused the problem in the first place?
Cancer prevention starts with environmental protection
While racing for a cure for those already afflicted with cancer is critically important, let’s remember the wise adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Beyond the same-old recommendations to eat more vegetables, get more exercise, and stop smoking, where is the rallying call to clean up our environment? To protect our water from contaminants? To farm organically?
If we’re really serious about curing cancer, let’s provide policy and financial incentives for organic agriculture; let’s ban carcinogenic agricultural chemicals, and accept the precautionary principle as our national guideline for adopting new technology.
The GMO–cancer connection
Take genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops. According to the World Health Organization, the agricultural use of glyphosate, “a probable human carcinogen,” has skyrocketed since the development of GMO crops that have been genetically modified to resist glyphosate, despite the industry’s line that GMO crops would reduce chemical use.
As Charles Benbrook explains, from 1974 to 2014 agricultural use of glyphosate increased 300-fold — from 0.8 million to 250 million pounds. What’s more, the resulting weed resistance has led farmers to apply additional chemicals, posing further risk to human health.
Don Heacock, Kauai District aquatic biologist who is featured in the film, AINA: That Which Feeds Us, asks, “What good is technology if we poison our water and children?”
The good news is we already know how to make an earth-shattering difference in cancer rates. The President’s Cancer Panel Report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” states that the “true burden of environmentally-induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” It’s been under-funded and under-researched.
The report recognizes children’s unique vulnerability and provides key cancer prevention strategies, including:
- Filter home tap or well water.
- Choose food grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
- Eat meat raised without hormones and antibiotics.
Look at it this way: If we prevent cancer, eventually we won’t have to worry about finding the cure. What we need is a full-cost accounting system that factors in the high cost of agricultural chemicals on our nation’s health. Let’s advocate for policies that support prevention, and never allow short-sighted financial profit from reigning supreme over long-term public health.