This book should transform your outlook on cancer research

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

A few days ago I finished watching a new documentary on Bill Gates’ life and work. One of the episodes narrated the sad story of the death of his mother in the mid 1990s from late stage breast cancer. She was a great philanthropist and a doting parent who managed to see Bill get married just before she died. At that point her son was already one of the most successful and wealthiest individuals in the world, but with all his resources and wealth, her life could not be saved. Steve Jobs, another person who had access to every medical treatment that money can buy, died early from cancer. These two stories tell us how great the leveling effect of cancer is, taking poor and rich alike without discrimination. Like war, cancer is the father of us all.

Today breast cancer can be treated much better than it was in the 1990s. There are better drugs and better radiation treatment options available, but for resistant late stage breast cancer the prognosis isn’t much better. In fact, as Dr. Azra Raza who is a distinguished oncologist at Columbia University tells us in this eloquent, thought-provoking and immensely sobering book, what’s true for breast cancer is true for most other kinds of cancer except for a few rare exceptions. The hard hitting truth is that in spite of tens of billions of dollars fueled into research around the world done by some of the smartest people in the field, the truly relevant endpoint for cancer – the increase in someone’s life span – has not changed much even after thirty years. For instance, a study of FDA-approved drugs from 2002 to 2014 showed that these drugs extended people’s lives by an average of only 2 months. Dozens of Nobel Prizes have been given out for basic cancer discoveries, cancer ‘moonshots’ have been promoted by politicians, startups and hospitals working on cancer continue to spend countless dollars and hours on a cure for the disease, but the two things that matter most for patients and their loved ones – extension and quality of life – haven’t changed much.

To know why this depressing scenario persists, Raza offers a simple reason with a hard answer: we are focusing too much on late stage cancer treatment, when the disease has already progressed and spread throughout the body, and much less on early stage detection and prevention. In spite of purported cancer breakthroughs in the media, the treatment is essentially the same as it has been for decades – slash (surgery), poison (chemotherapy) and burn (radiation), a triad of interventions sounding like they have been imported from the Stone Age, used because we can’t use anything better. Read more »

Does Beer Cause Cancer?

by Carol A. Westbrook

EarthTalkBeerCleanWaterI have been taken to task by several of my readers for promoting beer drinking. “How can you, a cancer doctor, advocate drinking beer, ” I was asked, “when it is KNOWN to cause cancer?” I realized that it was time to set the facts straight. Is moderate beer drinking good for your health, as I have always maintained, or does it cause cancer?

Recently there has been some discussion in the popular press about studies showing a possible link between alcohol and cancer. As a matter of fact, reports linking foods to cancer causation (or prevention) are relatively common. I generally ignore these press releases because they generate a lot of hype but are usually based on single studies that, on follow-up, turn out to have flaws or cannot be confirmed; the negative follow-up study rarely receives any publicity. Moreover, there are often other studies published at other times showing completely contradictory results; for example, that red wine both prevents and causes cancer.

Furthermore, there is a great deal of self-righteousness about certain foods, and this attitude can cloud objectivity and lead to bias in interpreting the results; often these feelings have strong political implications as well. Some politically charged dietary issues include: vegetarianism; genetically modified crops; artificial sweeteners; sugared soft drinks. Alcohol fits right into this category–remember, we are the country that adopted prohibition for 13 years. There is no doubt the United States has significant public health issues related to alcohol use, including alcohol-related auto accidents, underage drinking, and alcoholism, and the consequent problems of unemployment, cirrhosis of the liver, brain and neurologic problems, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Wouldn't it be great if the government could mandate a label on every beer can stating, “consumption of alcohol can cause cancer and should be avoided”? Wouldn't that be a wonderful “I told you so!” for the alcohol nay-sayers?

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