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Eat to Beat Cancer: It’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

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In 2012, about 577,190 Americans are expected to die of cancer, more than 1,500 people a day

Written in memory of Jarren Donatini, who lost his brave battle with cancer at the age of 4  1/2.

In 2012, about 577,190 Americans are expected to die of cancer, more than 1,500 people a day.

Cancer accounts for nearly 1 of every 4 deaths in our country.  Every school day 46 kids are diagnosed with pediatric cancer.

Scientific evidence suggests that about one-third of the 577,190 cancer deaths expected to occur in 2012 will be related to overweight or obesity, physical inactivity, and poor nutrition.  In other words, 1 in 3 of the cancers affecting about a quarter of us could be prevented.

Why aren’t we talking about this the way we are talking about obesity?

Obesity is the playing field we are currently on.  If you’ve put on too many pounds, “Don’t buy that extra soda…cheeseburger…bag of chips” we are told.  Personal accountability becomes the talking point, and the blame can be shifted from the provider (the food industry) to the user, we the eaters.

But that’s like telling a drug addict to walk past a dealer every day of the week and abstain.  Food is everywhere in our culture, available 24/7, and promoted with a marketing budget that rivals the FDA’s budget itself.  And as much as we don’t want to talk about diet-related disease (it hurts to go there), it’s time that we talked about cancer and food.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 5% of all cancers are strongly hereditary. However, most cancers do not result from inherited genes but from damage to genes occurring during one’s lifetime.

Genetic damage may result from internal factors, such as hormones or the metabolism of nutrients within cells, or external factors, such as tobacco or chemicals.  41% of Americans are expected to get cancer in their lifetime, and the average age of cancer diagnosis in children is ten.

So what does food have to do with it?  Scientific evidence is mounting and so are the questions.  Doctors are MD Anderson have called it “The Doorknob Syndrome” – a patient, newly diagnosed, is advised in office of the radiation and chemotherapy procedures, and as he or she turns to go, with their hand on the doorknob, turns to the oncologist and asks: “Is there anything that I could be doing with my diet?”

It’s an important question, and one that the doctors want to “upstream” as they say. In other words, they want to help educate patients about diet-related choices before they reach the oncology offices.

Does eating food that has been genetically mutated cause mutation of our cells?  No long-term studies have been conducted.  Do the chemicals sprayed on these foods contribute to the damage?  Ethical concerns around feeding trials that breech medical ethics tend to stop that research from being conducted. In other words, with no human trials, no pediatric trials and no prenatal trials, we are the human trial.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that the overall costs of cancer in 2007 were $226.8 billion.  That number is almost too big to fathom.  If you were to count one billion with seconds (not 226.8 billion, but just one billion), it would take you 31.7 years of continuous counting. To get to two billion, would take 63.4 years, to get to three billion…well, you get the picture.  With $103.8 billion for direct medical costs (total of all health expenditures) and $123.0 billion for indirect mortality costs (cost of lost productivity due to premature death), we have to address this growing tumor on our economy.

Oncology researchers suggest, “The toxicity of chemotherapy and other drug treatments for cancer has extended beyond side effects such as nausea and nerve pain. It has now extended to a patient’s ability to pay the mortgage and buy groceries while undergoing care, said the author of a study looking at the financial impact of cancer treatment.”  A study conducted by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that as cancer patients’ survival time increases, so do the chances they will declare bankruptcy.

According to Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, Professor and Director at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, “This is the first generation predicted to live fewer years than their parents. The incentives are all wrong. In medicine, we’re financially rewarded for treating the sick, but not for helping people get or stay healthy.”

Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease among U.S. children between infancy and age 15.Every school day 46 kids are diagnosed with pediatric cancer. Among the major types of childhood cancers, leukemias (blood cell cancers) and brain and other central nervous system (CNS) tumors account for more than half of new cases.

White children are more likely than children from any other racial or ethnic group to develop cancer.

And September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.  We didn’t have one of these when we were kids.

But the landscape of children’s health has changed.  And so has the landscape of food.  According to Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, Professor and Director at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, “the recommendation from the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American Institute for Cancer Research is an emphasis on a plant-based diet and reduce processed meat and red meat for cancer prevention and the same recommendations for cancer survivors. The new guidelines from the USDA also recommend a reduction in protein from animal sources.” And while MD Anderson is talking about this, are pediatricians?

They didn’t have to when we were kids.  We didn’t have a month designated to childhood cancers.

And our kids shouldn’t have one either.

Having held onto the moms who have lost their little ones and looked into the eyes of dads that have cradled a coffin, the heartache is immeasurable.

So while none of us can do everything, all of us can do something.  And following the advice of MD Anderson, the USDA and other organizations, just might be a start.  Here are a few of their tips:

  • Eat less red meat and more veggies
  • Eat less salt and more spices
  • Drink less sugar and more water

Diet is not one size fits all, and cancer isn’t either, but if we can arm ourselves with knowledge and learn how to Eat to Beat cancer, we can work together to protect not only the health of our kids, but also the health of our country.


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