Thumbs Up for The President’s Cancer Panel, Thumbs Down for the American Cancer Society

Dr. Richard Frank—

Nearly every single day in my medical oncology practice, I have to explain to a fit, non-smoking, healthy-eating individual with no family history of cancer why they now have cancer. I cannot. As I explain in Fighting Cancer with Knowledge and Hope, tobacco use, obesity, diets high in saturated fats and lifestyles lacking exercise contribute to the development of cancer. Plus, approximately 5-10% of individuals have a genetic predisposition to cancer. Yet, many cancers remain unexplainable. And more young people seem to be affected. Could the cause be our environment?  As many know, it certainly could be.

The fact that we are exposed daily to potential cancer causing chemicals (carcinogens) in our air, water and food supply is not a surprise. Since the industrial revolution, progress has often meant pollution and the contamination of our lakes, rivers, streams, soil and air. But, who will speak up about this problem? Who will protect us? Our university cancer centers and the pharmaceutical industry are trying to better understand the deranged cancer cell so as to target its destruction with cancer fighting drugs. This is a noble task and has led to many improvements in cancer therapy. But, it is not prevention. So, it is up to our public servants, the government to protect us.

But governmental protection can be politicized and be lax or strong. Recently it has been lax. Now, a new report from the President's Cancer Panel aims to reinvigorate this effort by highlighting the many threats to our health in the environment. There are thousands of chemicals in use in the US, but the safety of the vast majority are unknown. The report also suggests ways that individuals can reduce their exposure to cancer causing agents, such as buying pesticide-free produce, using water filters and avoiding exposure to BPA and other plastic components.

Quite shockingly, the American Cancer Society was critical of this report, as covered in the May 7 issue of The New York Times. This is unfortunate and misguided. I believe that the more we learn about the chemical dangers in our environment, the healthier we will be and the less cancer we will face.

Richard C. Frank, M.D., is director of cancer research at the Whittingham Cancer Center of Norwalk Hospital, medical director of Mid-Fairfield Hospice, and Clinical Assistant Attending at Weill Cornell Medical College. He has been appointed cancer expert for WebMD and was named a “Top Doc” in the New York Metro area by Castle and Connelly.

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10 Discussions on
“Thumbs Up for The President’s Cancer Panel, Thumbs Down for the American Cancer Society”
  • Dear Dr. Frank,
    Thank you for giving your support to the President’s Cancer Panel.
    It is surprising that the American Cancer Society would criticize the findings of the Panel. It seems to me that after several Administrations that were pro-business and anti-environment, the ACS would welcome more stringent regulations for carcinogens and toxic chemicals in our water, food, and general environment. They seem to imply that since environmental exposures make up a smaller fraction of cancer cases than smoking and obesity do, we should ignore the environment and only concentrate on the larger problems. Why can’t we do both?
    Cancer knows no boundaries – it attacks both the poor and the wealthy – so we should all be concerned about unnecessary exposures to carcinogens. Part of the problem is that people don’t know when they are being exposed to something that could eventually kill them, so we need public education as well as regulations.
    There are many examples of exposure that can be cited from our every day lives, such as pesticides and herbicides that we use in our gardens; hexamethylphosphoramide, chlorodecone, lead acetate, lindane, mirex – but who stops to read the labels? And if one does read the label, how would he/she know how dangerous the compound is?
    We paint our homes and use solvents to thin the paint. We use degreasers, and paint removers sometimes with no protection and without adequate ventilation. Benzene, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, dichloromethane, tetrachloroethylene, and trichloroethylene represent a short list of these solvents, but there are many more.
    There are also exposures to ionizing radiation (x-rays), toxic dusts (asbestos, silica, wood dust, etc.) and exposures to toxic metals (arsenic, lead, and mercury) in our water. There truly is no end to them, but if we can educate people to be aware of these things and try to clean up our environment there is hope for a healthier future. So I applaud the President’s Panel for attempting to deal with this problem.
    I believe we finally have a President who cares about the people, and we should all support him in his attempts to improve our lives. The American Cancer Society should think twice before criticizing his panel, otherwise we may start to think they have been “bought” by the special interests.
    Margaret Y. Brooks, Ph.D.
    Brooks Environmental Consulting

  • Dear Dr. Frank
    A good article and some very interesting comments. I suspect that many of our challenges with cancer and obesity have a great deal to do with what we eat. The trends over the past 20 years are staggering and they are everywhere. I don’t believe that it’s a simple case of people just eating too much food and not exercising. Both of those are issues but we simply do not know enough about the long term consequences of our choices with the content of what we eat. From a cultural perspective, our dependence on processed foods has made it acceptable to put things (chemicals) in our bodies that we very likely should not. They may preserve foods, but they do not preserve our health!
    Edward E. Hackett

  • Dear Edward,
    Thank you for your comments, which I completely agree with. The books by Michael Pollan wonderfully explain the problems with our modern day diet. Chemical carcinogens can contaminate food as well, which is why the President’s Report is so important.

  • Dear Dr. Frank,
    I can appreciate your commentary, but wonder if the government can spend money in an area of research that may be more directly related to the cause of cancer? A study done approximately 10 years ago on the relation of the environment and the incidence of breast cancer on Long Island did not conclude that there was a direct cause of cancer. However, it is not well known to me what type of environmental factors were tested in that study. In addition, as Westport has become “plastic bag free” and China is now producing our reusable bags, which emit toxic waste (talk about irony), do you know if there is a higher incidence of cancer in China as compared to the U.S. What are your thoughts of the exposure to radon in relation to cancer in our area? It is well known that Fairfield County has some of the highest levels of radon as compared to counties further inland. I feel that the population of patients who never smoked and are diagnosed with lung cancer are increasing.

  • Like your post it is very much along the lines of what I believe in when it comes to our diet and bodies. My wife who is a Cancer research scientist has also written a book which has a whole chapter dedicated to BPA and it affects on us.People need to realise what their food is doing to them!

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