COVER/ESSAY

REPORT FROM THE FRONT

Malcolm Gray June 13 1988
COVER/ESSAY

REPORT FROM THE FRONT

Malcolm Gray June 13 1988

REPORT FROM THE FRONT

COVER/ESSAY

Malcolm Gray

Hot sun, some steaks on the grill and a cooler full of beer are the ingredients for a perfect day at the beach to many Canadians. But there are hidden dangers in such pleasures. Sunlight contains harmful ultraviolet rays—and alcohol and barbecued meat both carry minute traces of cancer-causing agents. Indeed, cancer’s deadly threat appears at times to be all-encompassing as researchers uncover the presence of carcinogens in a frighteningly long list of foods and beverages, ranging from mushrooms to coffee. And the pain and suffering caused by cancer-after heart disease, it is Canada’s major cause of death—is tragically high. The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) estimates that doctors will diagnose about 96,300 new cases of the disease this year—and that cancer will kill more than 50,000 Canadians in 1988.

Still, many experts offer strikingly similar advice about cancer exposure: avoid hazardous substances—including food that contains saturated fats—and stop worrying about the slight risk that accompanies such activities as eating barbecued meat. Classic cookout: the hidden

In fact, while people of

all ages are vulnerable to a disease that has provoked terror throughout history, cancer is still predominantly a disease of the elderly. Last year in Canada, patients over 65 accounted for 60 per cent of newly diagnosed cases among men, while women in that same age group accounted for 51 per cent of new cases. In addition, such experts as Bruce Ames, a University of California biochemist at Berkeley, stress that the disease has not become a runaway killer in modern times.

Stable: Ames and others say that types of cancer that are clearly caused by environmental chemicals—among them, stomach, bladder and kidney cancers—are not increasing. Indeed, CCS spokesmen note that cancer incidence and death rates in Canada have remained remarkably stable in recent years. The two major exceptions: during the past 17 years, cases of lung cancer and melanoma, a potentially fatal skin cancer caused by prolonged exposure to sunlight, have soared dramatically because of an increase in the number of women smokers and the

continued popularity of suntans among both sexes.

Clearly, the risk of contracting those types of cancer can be sharply reduced by simply avoiding tobacco use and staying out of the sun—an approach that some specialists say should be much more heavily stressed in the fight against the disease. The CCS, for one, allocates about $28 million worth of grants to fund cancer research projects each year—but spends only $10.6 million on public education. One reason, according to Roger Hodkinson, an Edmonton pathologist who advocates spending more money to publicize methods of preventing cancer: “It’s easier to

sell research than advocacy that smells of ‘Thou Shalt Not.’ ” But some of the causes of cancer are rooted in genetics and are not simply a matter of curbing bad habits— factors that help fuel the drive to unlock the secrets of a baffling disease. And the survival rate for victims—overall, less than half the number of newly diagnosed patients will still be alive in five years’ time—provides an added spur.

Attack: Early detection and prompt treatment save most of the victims of such forms of g the disease as uterine 2 cancer. By contrast, the

0 low survival rate of lung s cancer patients —only

1 eight per cent of men I and 13 per cent of women I survive five years after ? diagnosis —underlines

dangers of fun in the sun the lethal nature of some

types of cancer. For one thing, eradicating 99.9 per cent of the approximately one billion cells in a thumb-sized tumor still leaves a residue of a million malignant cells ready to renew their attack upon the body.

Now, besides traditional cancer fighters such as surgery, radiation and highly toxic drugs—treatments that some specialists refer to as “the cut, burn and poison approach”—researchers have obtained promising results with potent chemicals that strengthen the body’s immune system. They include Interleukin-2, a hormone stimulant that dramatically increases the tumor-killing power of certain white blood cells. Many scientists say that the results of immune therapy research hold the promise of conquering the age-old scourge. But researchers still have to discover the so-called magic bullet that will cause cancer to relinquish the field. As a result, such homely but prudent courses of action as shunning cigarettes—and suntans—remain essential weapons in the continuing war against the disease. □