Cancer: A mostly modern disease

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

November 2008

"Cancer runs in my family. I'm bound to get cancer." The first statement may be true for many of us; the second isn't true for any of us. Although the tendency for cancer is certainly inherited there are many environmental "trigger" factors that everyone can avoid.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death but the reason for most of it is lifestyle, not inheritance. The good news is that both the incidence and the death rate are declining, largely because of a reduction in tobacco use, earlier screening, improved chemotherapy and better surgical management. The bad news is that some lifestyle factors are making the cancer problem worse.

The changes in sexual behavior since the 1960s and the decline in births have influenced two major forms of cancer in women. Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease and it is the primary cause of cervical and vaginal cancer. The infection is so common in young women (up to 60 percent in some large cities) that several states have introduced legislation to make the recently approved HPV vaccine (Gardasil) mandatory for young girls.

As a result of successful contraception and a declining birth rate, modern women have more menstrual cycles during their lifetime. This "incessant ovulation" appears to raise the risk of ovarian cancer.

Obesity is associated with cancer of the breast and that of both the cervix and the lining (endometrium) of the uterus. As the percentage of body fat increases, so does the risk of these cancers.

If current trends continue, obesity will soon overcome smoking as the most important preventable cause of cancer. Contrary to scientific opinion in the past, fat cells don't just sit there. They manufacture chemical substances, including hormones, which promote the development of cancer.

Several other types of cancer are associated with excess weight, even in persons who are overweight but not obese: colon, rectum, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney and esophagus. There may also be a link to lymphoma and leukemia.

Colorectal (colon and rectum) cancer has a strong tendency to run in families but there are avoidable triggers that make it more likely. Smoking is one of these. So are several habits that lead to both obesity and type 2 diabetes: little physical activity, a high intake of fat, an excess intake of refined carbohydrates (mainly flour and sugar) and a low intake of fruits and vegetables. Other factors include a diet that is heavy in red meat and processed meat.

These are only some of the lifestyle choices that we have made in the last half-century that have affected cancer rates. In addition to cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes have crept up on us so insidiously over the past few generations that we have accepted all three problems as unavoidable, a normal part of aging. Clearly, they are not. We can reverse the process dramatically by individually changing our eating and activity habits. In so doing we can also avoid the financial train wreck that lies ahead of us: the unsustainable cost of health care.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at