Cancer: Is it an Epidemic?

Few guys who've aged enough to graduate into the workaday world have escaped the sorrow of having a buddy or loved one diagnosed with cancer. At times—and especially through a doctor's eyes—it can look like it's all around us. So let's pause for a few minutes and take some reassurance in the facts.

It's true that there are more cases of cancer being reported than ever before—18.6 percent more in the U.S. than 20 years ago. But the overall statistic—1,250,000 cancers per year—doesn't tell the whole story.

First of all, we've become much better at detecting cancer. Early diagnosis of prostate cancer—the most common cancer in men and the number two cancer killer of men—has been revolutionized by the PSA blood test. Today, we find many more prostate cancers early enough to cure them. (We also find some that don't need to be treated; discuss options with your doctor.)

Thus, although more cases are discovered, the odds of surviving cancer have improved greatly. Today 4 in 10 guys with cancer can expect to live at least 5 years; in the 1940s, that number was 1 in 4.

Cigarettes also skew the cancer data. If you leave out lung cancer, the mortality rate from cancer actually dropped by 14 percent from 1950 to 1990. Many cancers that used to be deadly seldom are today. Deaths from testicle cancer, for example, have declined to less than one-half percent of the cases discovered.

We deserve congratulations on the progress made, but the job is far from done. The campaigns against lung and prostate cancer should be top priority. Avoiding lung cancer is simple, if not easy, and we're learning much about prostate cancer. A recent study from Sloan Kettering, for example, found that rats fed a lowfat diet had slower prostate cancer growth, so diet may turn out to play an important role.

At the same time, we shouldn't forget the other threats to face:

  • Colon cancer continues as the number-three cancer killer of men. A low-fat, high-fiber diet, coupled with regular screenings after 50, can change that.
  • Melanoma, a particularly deadly form of skin cancer, is the most rapidly increasing cancer in men. Sun protection and early detection through self-exams and check-ups are vital.
  • Cancers of the mouth and throat have increased significantly in younger men, most likely because of smokeless tobacco products and alcohol. More education—public and fatherly—is needed.

We may never banish cancer completely, but I expect our ability to avoid and to treat it will continue to leap forward. It may not be an epidemic, but it's something we can live without.


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