An oncologist-in-training thinks cancer is “natural.” Do you agree?

I just came across an editorial (https://www.statnews.com/2017/08/29/cancer-treatment-alternative-medicine/) by an oncologist-in-training who stated rather confidently that cancer is “natural.” He gives the example of a woman who rejected conventional treatments completely, and instead opted to go to Mexico for a strictly alternative approach. In his attempt to discount “natural” treatments, he made a statement which shocked me:

“The truth is, cancer is all natural. While some are caused by smoking or chemical exposures, most of them are sporadic, meaning they aren’t caused by any lifestyle factor, food, or chemical exposure.”

Wow.

This oncologist-in-training is making the mistake of assuming that something isn’t true simply because we don’t yet have conclusive proof for it. Does he really think that all of the environmental stressors we are exposed to today, through the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cosmetics we use, and the emotions we feel, only account for a small percentage of cancer? If so, then why are cancer rates on the rise – and have been for decades? If cancer is merely due to faulty genes, then why does the National Cancer Institute only estimate that 5-10% of cancers are due to inherited genetic diseases (https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics)?

The question we should be asking is this: what is causing the genetic changes we see in cancer? Shouldn’t we assume that it relates, at least partly, to the 80,000 chemicals registered for use today – despite the fact that most of these have not been tested for long-term safety? What about the 2,000 new chemicals released into the environment each year (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/it-could-take-centuries-for-epa-to-test-all-the-unregulated-chemicals-under-a-new-landmark-bill/)? We can view this situation in one of two ways:

  1. These chemicals are safe because they haven’t been proven harmful.
  2. These chemicals are potentially unsafe because they haven’t been tested for long-term safety.

It is clear to me that something is causing our bodies to produce cancer at rates higher than we have ever seen. My belief is that we must aggressively look for things which are contributing to the problem, and I would bet good money that a significant portion of that problem is related to the aforementioned chemicals.

However, we cannot neglect known factors which increase risk of cancer development, including obesity, smoking, lack of exercise, and chronic stress – all of which are directly within our control.

The author does make a very good point, and that is the need to combine both conventional cancer treatments with alternative cancer treatments. Such an integrative approach is one I wholeheartedly believe in, and I remain convinced that we will make the most progress in reducing cancer deaths using such an approach. We would be foolish to reject any treatment – conventional or alternative – simply because we have seen bad outcomes from it at times.

Cancer is not “natural.” There is always a reason it develops, and it is up to us as physicians to always be vigilant in looking for potential causes. We may never identify the exact causes, but we must always be searching. The moment we throw up our hands and say, “oh well” is the moment when we have surely lost the war.

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