One in two – you or me?

I’m afraid this is a heavy subject, but one we need to consider. Until very recently we were  officially told  that in this country one in three people would get cancer during their lifetime. But on the 4th of February the leading British  cancer charity,  Cancer Research UK, suddenly changed that proportion to one in two. Now that is an alarming change indeed; supposing if at any one time half the population goes down with cancer, will the other half be able to look after them? Yes, this question is purely theoretical,  but not unreasonable. Anyway, the news was duly, though briefly, reported in the media, before vanishing under the cascade of other news, mainly about murderous warfare somewhere or other in the world. Cynics might suggest that being killed in  battle at least saves you from getting cancer, but that’s hardly the point.

The official comment accompanying the bad news sounded comforting. Cancer, it claimed, was primarily  a disease of old age, of those aged 65 and over. Also, we could take some steps to protect ourselves. Leading expert Professor Peter Sasieni, of Cancer Research UK and Queen Mary University, London, even gave some advice on how to protect ourselves.  Give up smoking, he said in an interview, be more active, drink less alcohol and keep a healthy weight.

If that was meant to reassure me, unfortunately it failed to do so. For one thing it’s simply not true that cancer “primarily” attacks the elderly. In the UK, every year 3600 children are diagnosed with cancer; the childhood incidence rate has grown by 38% between 1966 and 2000, and cancer is the most common cause of death among the 1 to 14 year olds. Children apart, the incidence is even higher among young adults and those in early middle age. (Come to think of it, I was nowhere near 65 when I became ill with malignant melanoma several decades ago.)

So the age excuse doesn’t hold water. But hang on a second: why do our medical experts and other decision-makers act as if cancer were a natural disaster, an intruder from outer space, or the punishment of some angry deity? It’s none of those things, it’s the result of our increasingly unhealthy lifestyle, self-destructive habits and all the negative facets of modern existence that don’t suit our bodies’ true needs. Hence if we are causing much of our trouble, we can also undo it – pull out all the stops and write PREVENTION on every available surface. And let all the doctors, researchers, nutritionists and other experts take the lead, educate the public, make clear the simple means to build up their immunity, if need be with the help of celebs on TV who are more likely to be followed than a mere professor of oncology. This would be a big step towards reversing the trend, much more effective than making people wear pretty pink ribbons or March Against Cancer, whatever that’s supposed to do.

Alas, Prof.Sasieni’s advice about prevention is inadequate. “Give up smoking” – yes, absolutely essential; personally I’d prefer “stop smoking”, because “giving up” has a noble melancholy flavour, as if the smoker were to make a great sacrifice instead of getting rid of a harmful and frankly disgusting habit  (I say this as an ex-smoker myself). Either way good advice. But then comes “Be more active” – more than what if you lead a totally inactive life? Why not specify say twenty minutes’ brisk walk five times a week, as many doctors already prescribe? Next, “Drink less alcohol”. Again, less than what? If the man who drinks a bottle of wine every night cuts down to half a bottle, will that save him? And just how unscientific is this vague advice?  Finally, “Maintain a healthy weight.” Yes, sure. And that’s it. Isn’t something missing? H’m, yes.

Professor Sasieni didn’t say a word about the need to eat good, nutritious food and avoid chemical-rich junk food and sweet fizzy drinks; not a word about organic produce being demonstrably healthier and more pure than conventionally produced edibles. Yet  food is what keeps us going from our first breath to our last: surely its quality has much to do with what happens between those two breaths? And how can a medical authority of Professor Sasieni’s eminence simply omit this major subject when talking about cancer prevention?  Alas, nutrition plays no big part in medical education, and we all are the worse off for that.(Years ago, when an eminent oncologist told me that diet had nothing to do with cancer, I asked him whether his beautiful new car would run as well on washing-up liquid as on five star petrol. I am still waiting for his reply.)

All in all, for the time being it seems to me that we’ll have to research and create our own programme of prevention, since the medical profession doesn’t do the job properly. Still, I am inspired and comforted by the motto of the late great Norman Cousins: “Accept the diagnosis, but not the prognosis.” The diagnosis is that our current modern lifestyle increases the risk of cancer, but the prognosis, that one in two of us will go down with it, need not come true.