Last weekend s New York Times Review had a most informative and comprehensible article explaining why a perceived cancer epidemic is a fallacy, based upon the slower decline in cancer rates and deaths compared to the steep declines in cardiovascular mortality over the past six decades.
In his piece wisely named Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer, former editor at the Times (and author of The Cancer Chronicles must have a cancer obsession, right?) George Johnson lays out the facts of life, and death: no matter how apparently successful mankind s quest for immortality is, the final verdict will be, Sorry, no, we re all going to die eventually.
But of what? That is the key question posed, and sort-of answered, in this informative and thought-provoking article. In summary: our cells are miracles of metabolism and physiology and reproduction! That s the Good News. But evolution requires and assumes that mutations will occur even in the best-regulated cellular systems. The good mutations turned us from unicellular sea dwellers into the marvels of humanity we all have become!
The bad mutations...well, that s the Bad News. It seems that the longer we live, the more likely one (or more) of those mutations will turn one (or more) of our disciplined, monotonous cell lines into an independent group of guerilla fighters, obeying the rules no longer, dividing (and conquering) randomly and viciously, invading other tissues and organs, and spreading without limit: in other words, cancer. While we have improved the means to detect, treat and even prevent many cardiovascular diseases and thereby reduce the toll of heart attack, heart failure, stroke and the decline in smoking has led to a decline in COPD as well, the cancer enemy has proven more wily than the vascular one. And that is inevitable, for reasons described above: the longer we prevent other lethal ailments, the more likely we will at the end of life succumb to the natural tendency of our cells to mutate, the likelihood of which increases as we age.
Of course, great strides have been made against cancer too. The graphic in the article clearly shows that cancer deaths have declined an amazing 20 percent since 1990, a beneficial consequence of the decline in smoking rates over the preceding twenty-plus years. But the decline in heart deaths was an even more astounding 44 percent, thus seeming to yield a cancer epidemic that is more apparent than real.
ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross had this comment: As the writer says, it s cancer that will eventually kill you unless you die of something else first. Other important points made include the truly important decline in children s cancer deaths, and his note that only a small percentage of cancers have been traced to the thousands of synthetic chemicals...added to the environment.
As Mr. Johnson concludes, barring an elixir for immortality, a body will come to a point where it has outwitted every peril life has thrown at it. And for each added year, more mutations will have accumulated. If the heart holds out, then waiting at the end will be cancer.