I was listening to a Wall Street Journal podcast the other day in which Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, a leading NYC oncologist, was interviewed about the rise of cancer rates around the world. Although treatments are improving, the study found that “between 1990 and 2013, the proportion of all deaths caused by cancer rose from 12 to 15 percent worldwide.” This isn’t because there’s been a reduction in people dying from heart disease, which is currently the number one killer in the US: “No, it’s actual increase in the numbers.”
According to Dr. Gaynor, “we’re living in a world where about one in three people are going to hear the words, ‘You have cancer.’ And even more worrisome, it looks like that trend is continuing to increase. So, we’re probably headed toward a one in two over the next 5 to 10 years.”
Why is this happening? He continues: “Well, I think the reasons can basically be broken down into two general areas. One, we’re living in more of a fast-food, processed-food culture, and that’s spreading around the world. So, we’re eating more refined sugar, we’re eating more refined flour, we’re consuming more heat-damaged vegetable oils that preserve shelf life, and all of those turn on tumor-promoting genes, inflammatory genes which promote cancer, and promotes obesity which in turn promotes cancer.” Second: “There’s more and more environmental pollution—in the air we breathe, in the water that we’re drinking, in the pesticide and herbicide residues in food.”
So, here we have a traditionally trained oncologist, credentialed up the wazoo, pinpointing the S.A.D. (standard American diet) and its toxic environmental impact as the central culprits in rising cancer rates. With our food culture having been exported around the globe, the study found similar trends in Asia and Europe. “Over the next twenty years or so, it’s expected cancer is going to exceed heart disease as the number one cause of death.” And for us women, he added the prediction by the lead statistician at NIH, Dr. Phillip Rosenberg, that “breast cancer rates for American women by the year 2030 would increase by 50 percent.” That’s in fifteen years, not very far off.
Epigenetics is the study of how environmental and other external factors change the expression of our genes and the way in which our cells interpret our genes, and it’s central to understanding why diet impacts one’s vulnerability to cancer. We are all born with a unique genetic print, and some of us are more prone to disease and illness than others. But this needn’t necessarily be a death sentence. As Dr. Joel Kahn explains: “Our fork is so powerful it can not only transport food to our mouth, it can be used as a genetic on and off switch to alter our weight, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, cancer growth, and even our chances of healthy aging.”
You know what I find utterly baffling? Medical students do not study nutrition. My little sister, Tova, is entering her final year of med school and hasn’t spent five minutes on the topic of nutrition since she got there. She’s learning all about cutting and drugs, but absolutely nothing about foods that aid in disease prevention. Medical students are being educated to treat sick people rather than helping people avoid becoming sick in the first place.
If you’re like me, you are hearing ever more bad news about ever younger people in your community being stricken with cancer. The resources on the food/disease connection are all out there in plain sight, but perhaps the average person considers them too “fringe.” That excuse is no longer tenable as we now have a classically trained, leading oncologist supporting this concept and pinpointing a way for us to be proactive. In case feeling and looking our best doesn’t motivate us to put down the cupcake, chips, fast food, candy, and frappuccino, perhaps Dr. Gaynor has hit upon something that will.