Cancer is a subject that dominates our lives, but often the “facts” about what causes it—and possible ways to prevent it—are rife with misinformation. In her new book, A World Without Cancer: The Making of a New Cure and the Real Promise of Prevention, Dr. Margaret Cuomo, a radiologist and former attending physician in diagnostic radiology at North Shore University Hospital, tells it
like it is.
Is it possible to prevent cancer?
Yes. Scientific studies have shown that we can prevent more than 50 percent of all cancers just by applying what we know. Attention to diet and exercise, ending smoking, limiting alcohol, eliminating environmental toxins, taking vitamin D and purchasing personal care products—shampoo, body wash, moisturizers—that are free of possible cancer-causing chemicals like parabens and triclosan: all these can contribute to a cancer-free life.
Which dietary habits and physical activities decrease one’s chances of developing cancer?
Your daily plate should consist of two-thirds whole grains, vegetables and fruit, and one-third lean protein like chicken, turkey or fish. Meat should be eaten in limited quantities, because red meat can increase your cancer risk, as can processed and smoked meats. Eat organic produce like spinach, broccoli, kale and vegetables, because organic farmers are not allowed to use pesticides or genetically modified organisms—both of which can increase your cancer risk. Filter your tap water, too. And take vitamin D. There is no “one size fits all” dosage for vitamin D, so have your blood-level checked by your doctor. We are vitamin D-deficient in this country—it’s at an epidemic level.
And exercising means being physically active: taking the stairs rather than the elevator, walking a few blocks to your next appointment rather than driving, making sure children have physical exercise every day, whether that’s jumping rope, running laps or taking a bike ride.
Does the environment affect our health?
Bisphenol A, or BPA, is in many of the plastics that we use for a variety of products, including food. Food packaging and cans often contain BPA, and so do cash register receipts. BPA disrupts our endocrine system, and that’s very, very harmful for adults as well as children. In July 2012 the FDA ruled that plastic baby bottles and sippy cups could no longer be produced with BPA in the United States. So, why not eliminate BPA from all plastic products? There’s a little triangle on the bottom of every plastic container, and within that triangle is a number: Stay away from products with the numbers three, six or seven—those are the BPA-containing numbers.
What do you think the future will bring?
I’m hoping that we’ll focus much more attention on prevention, because we cannot keep going the way we are. We’re losing almost 600,000 people a year from cancer; 1.6 million people will be diagnosed this year alone. And we spend nearly $400 billion a year on the direct and indirect costs of cancer. That’s not sustainable.
Why isn’t the government taking more action?
Some steps have been made, but not enough. I’d like the government to be a better steward of public health. For example, there’s something called perchloroethylene, or “perc,” which is in dry cleaning solvents. This is a known carcinogen and we shouldn’t be using it. The EPA has stated that by 2020 dry cleaners in residential buildings will be restricted from using perc. But 2020 is eight years away—why not stop using it now? The government could also eliminate pesticides from essential crops. And we don’t know the full extent of how processed foods and added sugars are affecting our health—we do know they’re increasing obesity, and obesity is a risk factor for cancer. I hope that A World Without Cancer will help transform the way we deal with cancer in our country.