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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Don’t Give Up the Fight

Even if bad luck is a leading cause of cancer, it's still worth taking steps to minimize the risks.

My social circle was shaken a few days into the new year with an upsetting blog post. A friend I will call Mary is seriously ill. The blogger requested loving messages to her to be sewn into a quilt.

This bombshell began a flood of phone calls, emails, and Facebook posts.

Mary — sick? What? The blog post noted she doesn’t like to talk about her illness and refrained from sharing what was wrong. If you read between the lines, it sounded like cancer. It sounded terminal.

And it was. Or is.

Because Mary is still very much alive, albeit half her former size and completely bald from the chemo that didn’t work. She’s now receiving palliative care and preparing for a certain death.

It’s the typical story of “only the good die young.”


Mary just turned 45. Words like “vibrant” and “vivacious” come to mind when I think of ways to describe her. Her laugh is so joyous that the mere word “laughter” doesn’t do it justice. She’s the sort of person who lights up every room she enters with her presence.

I’ve got my flight booked to go see her, but I haven’t truly allowed myself to accept that she’s dying yet. That will hurt too much.

Meanwhile, the media began to report a scientific finding that two-thirds of cancers were just due to bad luck.

So was my friend doomed from the get-go? Is a lifetime of eating organic food, getting plenty of exercise, and doing every other good thing you’re supposed to not enough to protect you?

The Guardian calls these headlines “bad journalism” and “bad science.” (Because they’re British, they also call them “bollocks,” a charming term from across the pond that can be loosely translated as “bunk.”)

In other words, whether they’ve got good luck or bad, we still need to remind people that smoking causes lung cancer. And while that’s a bummer if you’re trying to quit, it’s actually great news because it gives us some control over our own fates.

The President’s Cancer Panel report gives some other good tips on reducing risk. (Yes, the government did something useful.)

This year, the focus was on getting more Americans to get HPV vaccines to prevent the virus that causes cervical cancer.

Even more groundbreaking advice came from the 2008-2009 report, which addressed eliminating environmental toxins. The report recommends washing work clothes separately from other family laundry, drinking filtered tap water, storing liquids in stainless steel or glass containers, and eating organic food.

These feel like small, maybe insignificant actions. But if they reduce your cumulative lifetime exposure to carcinogens, they’re worthwhile.

It also calls to question why cancer-causing chemicals are allowed to be used at all. Why is it an individual’s responsibility to seek out pesticide-free foods? If certain chemicals are so bad they should be avoided, why is it legal for growers to douse our food with them in the first place?

Nobody should lose a loved one to cancer, and yet so many of us do. Whatever percentage of cancer cases are simply due to bad luck, we as individuals and as a society should pursue every avenue to avert the remaining cancer cases that are preventable.


OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. OtherWords.org.