Sweet & Deadly: What’s Eating You?

According to Cancer Research UK — one of the world’s most respected independent cancer research bodies — one in two people born in the United Kingdom and America after 1960 can expect to hear the words “you have cancer” at some point. This exceeds even the bleak odds of the previous generation, those born after 1930, whose chances of developing the disease were one in three. And it poses some uncomfortable questions. Why, for example, despite decades of research and science, is cancer becoming more prevalent rather than less? And could we be doing more to prevent this alarming trend?

The answer to the second question is a resounding yes. According to a growing body of evidence, 50 percent of cancer cases today are caused by lifestyle habits, not genes. And, according to Dr. Christine Horner, one of America’s leading breast surgeons, an astounding 95 percent of breast cancers could be eliminated just by making simple but far-reaching changes.

“The major culprits of the vast majority of cancers are within our control,” says Horner, who in the early 1990s became alarmed by the increasing number of very young women she saw diagnosed with breast cancer. When her own mother was diagnosed and subsequently died with the disease, Horner began an intensive search through medical literature to find what might be done to help prevent breast cancer. She was astonished by the results.

“The research that says that about 50 percent cancer could be prevented by diet and lifestyle alone,” she said. “Genetics has very little to do with it. Even if you have a predisposition for a particular type of cancer, what researchers have found is that we can manipulate the way our genes are read based on our diet and lifestyle. It’s called epigenetics. Basically the food we eat, the time we go to bed, and the emotions that we feel, all these things produce chemicals in our bodies that will hook on to the DNA and activate certain genes. We now understand that we can drastically alter the way our genes are read based on the foods we choose or choose not to consume and our overall lifestyle and emotions – emotional stress, for example, has been shown to be a huge factor.”

Credit: Dean Wheeler

This last point is something that Little Rock native Bobby Harris can attest to. Harris, a veteran volunteer for the American Cancer Society (ACS) and recently appointed as a member of the Mid-South Region Board of Directors, is something of a local golden boy. He is a founding principal of Ifrah Financial Services, past chair of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce “Ambassadors,” a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and a past president of the Arkansas chapter of the Financial Planning Association (FPA). But his life was turned upside down when he and his wife lost their first child, Noah.

The grief of this period enveloped the entire family, and within a year, four of Harris’ loved ones developed cancer. “My wife had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, my dad found out he had lung caner, my sister found out she had breast cancer and my stepmom had cervical cancer,” Harris said. “I’m convinced that the stress that the whole family went through had something to do with these cancers showing up one after the other.”

Luckily, every member of Harris’ family survived, and this August he and his family are being honored at the Cattle Baron’s Ball in recognition of their years of service for ACS. But having lived through the nightmare of cancer, Harris is now one of Arkansas’ strongest advocates of cancer prevention. “Prevention is one of the things that I appreciate most about the American Cancer Society,” he says. “When they look at cancer, they do it from every aspect. I have a huge amount of respect for how they are going about tackling this disease.”

The American Cancer Society is the largest cancer charity in the U.S. and is involved in an exhaustive list of initiatives, programs and activities to inform the public about cancer prevention. It is also active in government, trying to change laws to limit or prevent the sale of products that are known carcinogens.

But Harris is frustrated by the lack of urgency in tackling what is fast becoming America’s biggest killer. “Let me put it this way,” he says. “If the number of people lost every year in America to cancer were taken out in a terrorist attack, we would confront the problem immediately and with all available resources. But because this is cancer, we’re just kind of used to it. The idea is that cancer is always going to be there. People just cross their fingers and hope it won’t happen to them. But we don’t want people to get into this habit of thinking that there is nothing else that they can do. There are so many things that can be done to minimize your chances of developing cancer.”

Letitia Thompson, vice president of Mid-South Division Health Systems for ACS, passionately concurs and is a living embodiment of the organization’s dedication to preventing unnecessary cancers. “I have lost four family members to cancer,” she says. “I want to see that 50 percent of people with preventable cancer not get cancer. I want the other 50 percent to get the best possible treatment. That is the reason I come to work every day.”

“All four of the cancer deaths in my family were smoking-related,” she continues. “In relation to tobacco, I work with the FDA and the federal government to try to restrict its sale and impose tougher age limits. What we know about tobacco is that people with the strongest addictions started smoking before the age of 18. The harder we can make it, and the longer we can delay people getting their hands on cigarettes, the less likely they will have that addiction later in life. Tobacco is the only product that, when consumed exactly as intended, will cause cancer.” The same might be argued, however, about sugar.

Credit: Dean Wheeler

When German doctor Otto Warburg won the Nobel Prize in 1931, it was for his groundbreaking discovery that cancer cells have a fundamentally different energy metabolism from healthy cells, and that their fuel is sugar.

Eighty-five years of subsequent research around the world has repeatedly confirmed links between sugar intake and the formation of tumors, as well as a dramatically accelerated growth of existing tumors. Yet average Americans today eat almost their entire body weight in sugar per year. Could this be where the continued rise in cancer rates is coming from? Horner has no doubt that it is a major culprit.

“Sugar has now been determined to be a poison to the human body,” she says. “And it has many different consequences, including cancer. Cancer’s favorite food is glucose (sugar that has been broken down by the body). So the more you consume sugar, the faster the tumors can grow. Sugar completely knocks out the immune system. There are studies that show that after a person consumes a high-sugar meal, the immune system’s efficacy is reduced, in some cases by up to 90 percent for five hours afterwards. Sugar also increases inflammation, and we now understand that inflammation, along with oxygen-eating free radicals, are the common denominator for creating and fueling all chronic diseases, including dementia, arthritis and cancer.”

So why, when the link is so clear, has sugar in its many various guises (there are at least 61 different names for added sugar permitted on food labels; these include high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, barley malt, maltose and rice syrup, to name just a few) been allowed to become so ubiquitous (74 percent of supermarket products contain added sugar)? And why is the government not doing more to restrict their use and prevent unnecessary American deaths?

“Because it is about money,” Horner suggests. “Corporations run our government. Big business is something that affects our health and the food industry. It also comes down to education. When I was in medical school I did not have a single course in nutrition, so it’s a very slow process of change. Doctors are not educated in nutrition so, sadly, their focus and attention is not on diet, and nor, in turn, is their patients’.”

The ACS is trying to encourage producers of sugar and corn crops to find better ways to market their products to minimize health consequences. “We certainly want farmers to be able to grow products and for the economy to benefit from their work,” says Thompson. “We don’t want to deny anyone the opportunity to make a living. But we would love to see them use that corn, for example, to produce something more beneficial than high-fructose corn syrup.

“We are basically trying to move the mark not by not allowing advancements but by educating people. In the South, in the farming states, corn is important in our diet, but we are trying to work with the farmers to grow products that are not so detrimental to our health. Educating consumers is important, for example, teaching them the link between corn syrup and obesity. You don’t have to buy sugar products; you can limit your intake of that. We want consumers to be knowledgeable and to know how to read labels. We want to work with companies so they label products correctly, and we are working with restaurants so that they advise consumers of the grams of fat and calories that are in those items. We hope to drive change by teaching people how to make better health choices.”

So what are those health choices? “Paying attention to diet, eating whole foods and vegetables as much as possible,” Horner says emphatically. “Avoiding eating processed foods, sugars and red meat. Exercise is extremely important, as is going to bed at 10 o’clock at night. If you stay up until midnight it causes incredible hormonal changes in your body and doubles your chance of heart disease and cancers. Stress is also a major contribution, so doing stress-reducing techniques every day is beneficial; this could be something like meditation and yoga. And paying attention to relationships. Making sure that the people in your inner circle are people that you feel loved and supported by.”

“There are so many ways that people can control their prospective cancer cell growth,” continues Thompson. “Research is great, but it’s actually applying it to the population that is so important. We want to show other countries the way to do it. The Cancer Society is working to do this and is pushing to combine global research efforts. Fundraising events like the Cattle Baron’s Ball in Little Rock will allow us to do those studies and have staff in Arkansas that will go out and work with people and students in the community. It needs to be tackled at every level. For example, school systems need to have more balanced lunches. There is a reason why children are developing Type 2 diabetes. Parents need to stop giving kids apple pies from McDonald’s and start giving them apples.”

“Doing this volunteer work you hear a lot of sad stories,” concludes Harris.

“It’s a terrible disease, and if we could eliminate the cancers that we know we can prevent, if we are able to educate people, then I would consider that an enormous victory.”

Credit: Dean Wheeler

American Cancer Society’s tips for minimizing cancer risk

Watch your weight:

• Be as lean as possible throughout life without being underweight. For those who are overweight or obese (which is two out of three Americans), losing even a small amount of weight has health benefits and is a good place to start. Even just having too much belly fat is linked with an increased risk of certain cancers.

Get moving:

• Sitting is the new smoking — sitting for long periods of time greatly increases the risk of cancer, so try a stand-up desk or use a smart watch to remind you to move around every hour.

• Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity (or a combination of these) each week, preferably spread throughout the week.

• Children and teens should get at least an hour of moderate-or vigorous-intensity activity each day, with vigorous activity at least three days each week.

Eat right:

• Eat a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods — aim for two and a half cups of vegetables and fruits each day.

• Limit foods and drinks to amounts that help you get to and maintain a healthy weight.

• Limit how much processed meat (such as bacon, sausage, lunch meats and hot dogs) and red meat you eat.

• Read food labels to become more aware of portion sizes and calories. Be aware that “low-fat” or “non-fat” does not necessarily mean “low-calorie.”

• Limit your intake of “empty calories” in sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, sports drinks, and fruit-flavored drinks.

• When eating away from home, be especially mindful to choose food low in calories, fat and added sugar, and avoid eating large portion sizes.

• Prepare meat, poultry and fish by baking, broiling, or poaching rather than by frying or charbroiling.

Credit: Dean Wheeler

Be vocal:

• Individuals and public, private and community organizations need to work together at national, state and local levels to affect policy change and campaign for:

• Increased access to affordable, healthy foods in communities, places of work, and schools and decreased access to and marketing of foods and drinks low in nutritional value, particularly to the young.

• Provision of safe, enjoyable and accessible environments for physical activity in schools and workplaces and communities.

The ACS Cattle Baron’s Ball will be held in Little Rock on Aug. 20. For more information, visit CattleBaronsBallCentralAR.org.

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