I wonder if you watched Panorama this week? It was a gently uplifting programme which explained some exciting new human cancer experiments which are yielding some impressive results.
The overall tone of the programme echoed the speaker I heard at a Royal Society of Medicine Conference about cancer several years ago, where the NHS aim was clearly stated as helping people to live with cancer for much longer periods of time. He spoke of cancer hotels; reducing the stigma attached to the disease and making people more comfortable with it.
It looks as though we are making good progress.
Being cynical for a moment, I am struck by the fact that we are hailing containment of tumours with ‘lower-than-chemo’ side effects as unprecedented breakthrough. There is much to be gained by the NHS and pharmaceutical industry in keeping us in a state of controlled ill health that requires expensive medication – especially if the medicine can be taken at home. We can see the same aims in action with statins and heart disease, diabetes and metformin: although we have clear indications and good evidence that lifestyle changes can do everything that medication can do, with positive rather than negative side-effects, our physicians prefer to recommend the drugs. We are frequently reminded of the crippling costs of health care in this country but, of course, whenever there are big bills to pay, there are huge profits to be made. I see no evidence that anyone is trying to limit the growth of the health care industry, both the profits and the kudos associated with medical breakthroughs are big business. The uncomfortable truth is that a population with declining health offers more opportunity.
I’m disappointed that no one on this programme is talking about stopping cancer before it starts. I went to a talk at the British Society of Integrated Oncology last week, given by the redoubtable Xandria Williams (who was at that same conference years ago). She was talking about the possibility of detecting cancer even before tumour masses are evident, and had recently published her PhD on the subject. A simple blood test for three key substances is all it takes.
Because of their faulty metabolism cancer cells secrete a number of chemicals that normal cells don’t produce. As soon as you find them in the blood you can assume that some part of the body is in the process of producing cancerous cells. The test isn’t available in the UK but there is a lab in the US that can do it, and I’m sure we could replicate that over here if there was a will. We could even bring it within the NHS for much smaller budgets than the Panorama programme was discussing.
When detected at this early stage, it’s a fairly minor matter of making lifestyle changes to reverse the cancer process. It doesn’t require £35,000 per person per year, or any such staggering sum, all it requires is a changing a few habits.
We knew this decades ago. In fact, Otto Warburg – the pioneering biochemist whose name seems to be everywhere at the moment – first stated the cause of cancer in 1924. In 1941 he worn a Nobel Prize for his work and was nominated again in 1944 but unable to accept because of the war.
Almost 100 years ago he worked out that a shift in metabolism is the earliest sign of cancer formation and suggested we target that reaction to find a cure. I was fascinated to read this week the ‘news’ that the specific enzyme involved has been identified:
In 1966, after 20-odd years of cancer research, Warburg stated that avoiding cancer depended on staying well oxygenated, avoiding toxins and ensuring that the diet is rich in the nutrients needed for healthy respiration. There is no reason to dispute his findings today. He famously said that his proposals were “in no way utopian. On the contrary, they may be realised by everybody, everywhere, at any hour. The prevention of cancer requires no government help and no extra money.”
Five years later, Nixon declared the War on Cancer and threw millions of dollars at it. It seems Warburg’s finding were just not sexy enough to grab the headlines and make the profits.
Of course, not everybody can be persuaded to look after themselves in the way Warburg suggests. Some people just want to have fun, so we still need a medical system to care for the people who have to get ill before they learn how to get well. (I’m not knocking it, I was one of those people.)
But how ill do we want them to get?
Why do we insist on leaving it so late to intervene, concentrating all our effort on tumours?
If we could target our research efforts at the very earliest stage of cancer development, why wouldn’t we?
The great thing about Warburg’s theories is that, although they can be used to find early stage cancers, they can also be employed to inhibit cancer that has been allowed to progress. Tackling cancer at a metabolic level doesn’t hit the same problem of ‘resistance’ that occurs with genetic strategies.
I will be exploring the diet and lifestyle changes that support his ideas – along with other emerging ideas about cancer – in my workshop on Wednesday, 18th February.
Please contact me if you’d like to reserve the last remaining space. Or to book a space on the next one.
It looks like being an exciting day.