There once lived a man who looked death in the eyes and said “no”. When James Rhio O’Connor received his prognosis of one year to live in October 2001, he was determined to do everything in his power to outlive mesothelioma; a cancer of the mesothelium caused by exposure to asbestos (www.survivingmesothelioma.com). Mesothelial cells create the membranes that cover very important internal organs. When affected by cancer, these cells divide uncontrollably. Due to the position of the tumor, conventional medicine was unable to help Mr. O’Connor. Therefore with the help of countless clinicians and his own research, he was able to dramatically change his life in order to accommodate for this disease. Alternative medicine, diet, supplements, and sheer determination and optimism aided Mr. O’Connor to live until July 11, 2009 (Monthly).
James Rhio O’Connor’s story, along with countless others’, has truly compelled the scientific community to devote its time and money to cancer research. Perhaps the biggest display of dedication to this cause was shown in 1971 when President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act; a legislation that increased research to improve understanding of cancer, prevention, and treatment. Although it may seem that little progress has been made since the War on Cancer was announced, there have been many scientific breakthroughs since the early 2000s. In fact, the percentage of survivors increased by 19% from 2001 to 2007 (War on Cancer, 15).
As I registered once again this year for the annual Relay for Life, a fundraiser thrown on by the American Cancer Society, I realized I had no idea how my money was actually helping cancer research. How has cancer research advanced since the “War on Cancer” was announced? Are we making noteworthy progress or is the scientific community at standstill? What kind of research does my money contribute to? I decided to dig into this messy topic in order to educate myself.
Currently scientific research may be at a dead end for cancers like melanomas, pancreas, and childhood cancers, but it has certainly made great advancements in other fields (Reports Highlights, 2010). For instance, the four most common cancers, as well as cancer in general, have a decreased death toll. Colon cancer has had markedly lower rates of mortality due to improvements in common medicine such as chemotherapy and surgery (Kopetz, 2010). Prostate cancer mortality rates have also significantly decreased due to new inventions like the PSA, a test that monitors the amount of a specific protein secreted by the prostate gland (Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) Test, 2009). Researchers on breast cancer have come out with even more effective treatments like the medication Tamoxifen; an estrogen binding site blocker that in turn prevents cancer cell growth (Tamoxifen, 2012). Furthermore, awareness of the risks of cigarettes and second-hand smoking has finally made an impact on the prevalence of lung cancer (Reports Highlights, 2010).
Interestingly, even after all of these major advancements, cancer is still the leading cause of death by disease in people under the age of 85 (as a side note, the reason cancer does not affect people over the age of 85 as much as younger people is due to the fact that their cells do not divide nearly as quickly, therefore it takes much longer for cancer cells to metastasize). After further research on the prominence of cancer, I realized that the current treatments are not the underlying problem; prevention is. Cancer research has clearly spelled out the risk factors associated with cancer yet most people ignore these warning signs. For example, obesity, a rapidly growing phenomenon in the United States, has been linked with cancers of the esophagus, breast, colon, kidney, thyroid, and much more (Obesity and Cancer Risk, 2012). Yet even after research on its link to cancer and other major diseases has come out, the rate of obesity is still skyrocketing in America. Furthermore, eating unhealthy food has been linked with colon cancer. Taken in high quantities, the sulfur preservatives present in processed foods and meats have been found to create carcinogenic changes in the DNA of cells in the gut (Jopson, 1998). Due to the high importance given to these food groups in the United States, many people become at risk of having serious bowel diseases. Additionally, ethanol, the type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks, has been found to increase the risk of mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon, and breast cancer when ingested in great quantities. Ethanol damages body tissues, helps other harmful chemicals enter the body more easily, raises the level of estrogen in females (a hormone linked with breast cancer), and causes weight gain (Alcohol Use and Cancer, 2012). Moreover, although the rate of smoking has declined significantly since 1982, about one in five people were reported to be smokers in 2010 (Cigarette Smoking, 2011). Firsthand and secondhand smoking both cause equally grave results; the most common being lung cancer (accounting for the most deaths by cancer). Lastly, Vitamin D deficiency has also been a concern to many cancer researchers. Vitamin D is a hormone with many functions that is usually obtained through UV rays. It is involved in bone growth and repair, calcium absorption, and immune function. Unfortunately, many places do not get enough UV rays to sufficiently provide Vitamin D. Newer studies show that Vitamin D regulates the production of proteins that are in charge of cell differentiation and death. Therefore, Vitamin D deficiency can cause abnormal functions of these proteins, in turn causing uncontrollable cell proliferation (Vitamin D Deficiency: Information for Cancer Patients, 2008). One study specifically confirmed that taking 1100 IU/day of vitamin D3 and 1450 mg/day of calcium causes all cancer rates to drop 77% (Vitamin D and cancer, 2011). Unfortunately, much of the U.S. population is unaware of this fact and fails to get tested for Vitamin D deficiency. On a more positive note, all of the aforementioned behaviors and actions are easily reversible on a personal level compared to other types of carcinogens.
Primitive research on the environment has concluded that it has its fair share of blame for the high toll of cancer mortalities. Epidemiological research (the study of disease origin and development) on humans has found that pesticides, especially in high quantities, are carcinogenic. With the accretion of pesticides come accumulations of DNA changes; frequently causing the lymphatic system cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A study done by the National Cancer Institute in 1987 even showed that children in frequent contact with pesticides have a four times greater risk of developing leukemia (Petreman). Another environmental factor that is most likely contributing to the cancer toll is pollution. For example, diesel exposure has been linked with lung cancer. Although field research is still controversial, lab research has shown diesel’s abilities to change cell DNA, a preliminary step to cancer (Diesel Exhaust, 2010).
As I take a step back from my research, I realize how easily preventable so many of these risk factors are. Cancer screenings, washing produce with water to rid food of pesticides, eating less meat to decrease sulfur intake, not smoking, getting vaccines for cancers like HPV, and exercising 30 minutes per day are all manageable tasks that have already been proven effective by the scientific community (Reynolds, 2009). Not only will these behaviors prevent cancer, they will make the American population healthier in general. Therefore, education is key; both the young and old need to realize the downfalls of their lifestyles. We already have school systems implemented to teach the next generation, so why not take the time to teach them how easily cancer can be prevented? Even if their parents are not healthy, educating kids from an early age on how to have healthy habits will surely influence their lifestyles. Spreading the word to older generations is also mandatory. I realize that preventative studies have already been published in science and news articles, but this information needs to be communicated in even more ways (i.e. billboards, fast food restaurants).
I ended my inquiry with the most interesting topic of all, current cancer research (what my Relay for Life donations are funding). Since the genome project ended in 2003 (a project that identified millions of genes in human DNA), the scientific community has been able to use this enormous amount of data to create a new treatment called gene therapy. In simple terms, gene therapy is an experimental treatment that introduces new DNA or RNA into a person’s cells via a safe virus in order to aid them to fight or prevent a disease. It has already proven successful for the treatment of ADA but is still in its clinical trials for cancer treatment (Gene Therapy for Cancer: Questions and Answers, 2006). More research is vital to more forward and overcome all of the difficulties associated with such a complicated procedure. Unfortunately, funds are limited, therefore so is research. I urge everyone who is interested in this life-saving technology to donate in order to explore the full potential of genes therapy and eventually apply it to cancer prevention and treatment.
War on Cancer. (15, April 12). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_Cancer
Gene Therapy for Cancer: Questions and Answers. (2006, August 31). Retrieved from National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Therapy/gene
Vitamin D Deficiency: Information for Cancer Patients. (2008). New York, New York, United States: The Bone and Cancer Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.boneandcancerfoundation.org/pdfs/Vitamin_D_Booklet.pdf
Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) Test. (2009, March 18). Retrieved from National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/detection/PSA
Diesel Exhaust. (2010, November 08). Retrieved from American Cancer Society: http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/OtherCarcinogens/Pollution/diesel-exhaust
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Cigarette Smoking. (2011, November 21). Retrieved from American Cancer Society: http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/TobaccoCancer/CigaretteSmoking/cigarette-smoking-who-and-how-affects-health
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Alcohol Use and Cancer. (2012, January 27). Retrieved from American Cancer Society: http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/DietandPhysicalActivity/alcohol-use-and-cancer
Obesity and Cancer Risk. (2012, January 3). Retrieved from National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/obesity
Tamoxifen. (2012, April 15). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamoxifen
Jopson, D. C. (1998, August 11). Higher Cancer Risk for Big Beat and Junk Food Eaters. Nutridate.
Kopetz, S. (2010). Colorectal Cancer Survival Rates.
Monthly, C. (n.d.). James Rhio O'Connor. Retrieved from Surviving Mesothelioma: A Patient's Guide: http://www.survivingmesothelioma.com/rhiooconnor.cfm
Petreman, G. (n.d.). Pesticides and Cancer. Retrieved from Toxics Info: http://www.toxicsinfo.org/Lawn/Pesticides%20&%20Cancer.htm
Reynolds, G. (2009, August 18). Phys Ed: Does Exercise Reduce Your Cancer Risk? Retrieved from The New York Times: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/phys-ed-does-exercise-reduce-your-cancer-risk/