Ecoscience: Reducing Cancer Risk

You can't guarantee freedom from disease, but taking some common sense steps will limit your cancer risk.

| March/April 1979

If you're anything like us (or like most folks in the United States), the prospect of being among the one-out-of-every-four people who are—by the statistics—doomed to contract cancer is horrifying. Unfortunately, most folks feel helpless in the face of this threat. The tendency is to look upon cancer as almost an act of God, as something that's unavoidable.

From an individual's point of view, however, it would be more reasonable to compare cancer risk to the odds of dying in an automobile accident. In a society that's hooked on cars—as ours is—it's impossible to guarantee that any single person won't die in a crash. But the cautious, competent driver is, of course, much more likely to survive than is the fool who runs stop signs without looking. And the cautious, competent person also has a better chance of avoiding cancer than does the fool who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day and gorges on junk food.

Scientists have come to realize in recent years that the origins of most human cancers are environmental. The first connection between cancer and the environment was made by Sir Percival Pott in 1775 when he discovered that chimney sweeps were very likely to get cancer of the scrotum.

The second tie-in between environmental factors and cancer came 100 years later, when the high incidence of skin cancer in dye plant workers was connected to the dyes themselves. (It turned out that the chemical compounds involved were similar to those in the soot that the chimney sweeps were constantly exposed to!) Since then, the list of environmental carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) has increased impressively.

As a result of these findings, it's now clear that a sensible "war on cancer" should—as its top priority—reduce people's exposure to substances known to be (or even just suspected to be) carcinogenic. This approach makes a lot more sense than a desperate—and, in the short term, possibly fruitless—search for cures.

On the cancer front, the closest analogy to driving blind drunk on a freeway is smoking cigarettes. If you want to be killed by cancer, that's probably the quickest and easiest way to increase your odds. Don't be fooled, either, by the cigarette companies' claim that "it's only correlations" that connect smoking to cancer.

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