Cancer: A Disease of Civilization

Cancer: A Disease of Civilization
October 19th, 2010
Posted in History . Medicine
By Daniel Castellano

The only thing surprising about the Villanova study indicating that “cancer-causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialization” is that this is actually considered news. It has long been known that the incidence of cancer is extremely small in pre-industrial societies, nearly non-existent. In order to defend the current culture of emphasizing intervention over prevention, oncologists and others have argued that this is only an artifact of people living longer. The oft-repeated excuse that ancient people rarely lived to be more than 30 is profoundly ignorant and misleading.

When we say that ancient societies had life expectancies of 30 or so, this does not mean that people typically died around age 30. This is an average life expectancy at birth, a figure that is heavily skewed downward by a high infant mortality rate. Those who reached adulthood could reasonably expect to live into their 40s or 50s, and many lived to be over 70. This is why, when you read ancient Greek and Roman texts, such as the lives of the philosophers, there is nothing considered remarkable about living to eighty years old, and it is considered tragic if someone dies in their thirties. The “life expectancy” was much shorter, but the lifespan of man was just as long. People didn’t start having their bodies break down at age 45 just because the average life expectancy was shorter.

The same is true among Native Americans, for which we have a better record, since they lived in technologically primitive conditions until relatively recently. Nonetheless, they were noted for their health and longevity. Plenty of seventeenth century documents attest to the long lives of the Indians in Mexico, for example, where there were many who lived to well over eighty, including some reputed centenarians. The Inuit had no incidence of cancer whatsoever, despite living long enough to develop it (after all, we start screening for cancer at age 40, or 50 at the latest). It was only in the twentieth century that cancer became prevalent among the Inuit, when they adopted modern diet and a sedentary lifestyle.

In the mid-twentieth century, it used to be thought that men having heart attacks at 50 was just something that happens as part of the aging process, but now we know that early heart disease is fully preventable, being a consequence of behavior: diet and lack of exercise. Drug companies and doctors who advocate surgical interventions downplay prevention, since selling you the cure is much more lucrative. To this day, there is little emphasis on nutrition in medical school, and little serious research into the toxicity of processed food except in simplistic dose-response studies. Our bodies are complex organisms, and there are likely many interaction factors among substances that, by themselves, may appear harmless.

The Villanova researchers do not do themselves any favors when they make the excessive claim that “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer.” Still, the natural incidence of cancer among animals is astonishingly low, especially for a disease that is supposedly just a natural consequence of living long. Animals kept in captivity, protected from predation, can live their full natural lifespan, so we should certainly expect to see a significant incidence of cancer among them, but we do not. Up until the eighteenth century, cancer was comparably rare among humans. Indeed, when you read older documents mentioning a “cancer,” they are often referring to gangrene or some other degenerative growth. Cancer as we know it was extremely rare, though there were plenty of people who lived to old age.

The real turning point appears to have been in the last few centuries. The hallmarks of societies that have what we now consider “normal” cancer rates are consumption of refined sugars and carbohydrates (following the discovery of the Americas), tobacco use, giving first childbirth later in life, and universal use of toxic pesticides and other pollutants. The sheer abundance of toxins in our food makes it practically impossible to single out a cause in a simple dose-response relationship, which is why countless harmful things, each of which is minimally harmful, are allowed to remain on the market.

The embarrassing fact that many of the technological niceties which are forced upon us ostensibly to improve our lives (but in fact to reduce the cost of production and increase profit) are actually killing us makes a mockery of medical science’s posturing as a sort of earthly salvation. The scientific establishment expects to be praised for saving us from diseases they created through their own uncritical hubris (“Don’t be silly, this won’t hurt you, you Luddite”). For those who are hoping for salvation through medical science, I should remind you that researchers are just flesh-and-blood human beings, vulnerable to vanity and self-aggrandizement. They understand perfectly well that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or ten pounds of “treatment”. Modern medicine has judged it is much more profitable to sell you the ten pounds, and it’s hard to argue with their math, as the cancer industry is currently worth over $200 billion.

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One Response to “Cancer: A Disease of Civilization”

  1. Exactly.
    Quite often I try to inform people that people of European descent have a higher cancer rate because of their irresponsible lifestyles.

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