Shedding Light on the Cancer Scourge
by “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
AN ELDERLY woman living in Singapore visits her doctor to complain about a persistent cough. In Papua New Guinea, a nervous father takes his daughter to the white man’s clinic to show the physician her swollen and grossly distorted face. An Iranian farmer comes to the hospital in town to ask what he can do about the nonhealing sore on his head. All the afflicted ones find that they are suffering from what seemed, until recently, to be a “Western” disease—cancer.
The very mention of cancer has long been enough to stir emotions in the West. Recently, though, more and more cancer cases are coming to light in the developing countries of the East. A recent forecast placed the 1977 cancer-death toll at about two million people in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In the Philippines, cancer has moved from the seventh to the fifth place among the killer diseases. Most other Eastern countries are experiencing the same upward trend. Hence, this disease is now a scourge to be reckoned with even in developing lands.
In cooperation with their Western colleagues, doctors in the East are doing much research in an effort to identify causes of and cures for cancer. One field of this investigation is called “epidemiology.” This is the study of the extent to which various kinds of cancer affect different groups of people. From an examination of patients’ habits, surroundings, and so forth, the researcher tries to determine why a certain cancer occurs so frequently among a particular population. In many cases, the findings of their counterparts in the West have been confirmed. But there have been times when such research in the East has shed new light on the cancer scourge.
High Risk Groups
Epidemiological investigation identifies what are called “high risk groups.” These are people whose chances of contracting a certain form of cancer are noticeably higher than average. Among the Cantonese-speaking women of Singapore, for example, there seems to be a higher-than-average incidence of lung cancer. The Kadazan people of Sabah have more cases of cancer of the pharynx than those living around them. Breast cancer seems to pose a bigger threat to Caucasian women than to those of other races. Among the whites in the United States, there are 73.5 cases per 100,000 population, while in Japan there are just 13.9 cases per 100,000. Additionally, research by Professor A. Habibi of Teheran University has given strength to the suspicion that this form of cancer attacks persons of a higher social level more frequently than it does the poorer people.
What is the significance of these findings? It is hoped that researchers will help to pinpoint the reason for a high cancer rate among certain groups.
In Iran, the most common type of cancer is that of the skin. Why? Probably, say the doctors, because of exposure to sunlight and due to poor personal hygiene on the part of those afflicted. The part played by the sun in causing skin cancer is quite widely known, and many doctors strongly suspect that a daily bath serves as a protection against malignancies on the skin and in other parts of the body.
India reports an unusually high amount of throat, head, neck and cheek cancer. Why? Researchers attribute this to the common practice of chewing betel nut and using tobacco.
The Role of Chemicals and Diet
Scientists have long felt that there is a connection between certain chemicals and cancer. For example, the use of DDT as a pesticide in the production of vegetables and fruits has been banned in the Philippines for this reason.
Doctor Bhaskara Reddy of the Guntur Medical College in southern India cited factors that appear to confirm this theory. He reported that there had been a definite increase in all types of lymphomas (growths of the lymph nodes) in and around Guntur in the last seven years. Coincidentally, a number of pesticide and fertilizer factories had been built in the area during the same period. A close study is under way to determine just how much one factor is related to the other.
Aflatoxin is another carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemical. This is produced by a mold that can appear on foods. Philippine researchers have found it on peanuts, corn and cassava, among other things. Reports from Indonesia have been confirming the role of this chemical in causing cancer of the liver.
Meantime, doctors have been examining the relationship between cancer and a person’s diet. In Sri Lanka, cancer of the esophagus reportedly is quite common, with almost twice as many women as men suffering from it. Investigation revealed two main causes. Chewing betel nut and smoking certainly contributed. But the outstanding factor seemed to be an iron deficiency in the diet of the women.
Researchers in Hawaii had some interesting material to work on in this field. They studied the five major ethnic groups there: Chinese, Japanese, Caucasian, Filipino and Hawaiian. Seemingly, there is a considerable difference in the occurrence of cancer between these groups. Stomach cancer is five times as high among the Japanese as it is among the Filipinos, while breast cancer is three times as high among the Caucasian women as it is among the Filipinos.
The studies tried to correlate these statistics with the diets of the different groups. Preliminary findings showed that the total fat intake of each group paralleled quite closely the occurrences of prostatic cancer in men and breast cancer in women.
On the positive side, researchers in Japan have noticed the good effect of vitamin A in the prevention of lung cancer. It was noticed that those who ate plenty of green and yellow vegetables were less susceptible to lung cancer. Similar findings were reported among the Singapore Chinese.
Cancer and Other Diseases
Eastern research has indicated that sometimes another disease can trigger cancer. For example, in Egypt the most commonly occurring malignancy among men occurs in the bladder. Why should that be so? Researchers link it with the snail fever that is so widespread in the land. Work is under way to find out why such a connection should exist.
Japanese scientists now feel that cancer of the liver can be caused by hepatitis B, a liver disease caused by a virus. It has been found that an infected mother can transmit it to her newborn child. Also, it is often transmitted by blood transfusions. Thus, cancer should evidently be added to the list of possible complications arising from the practice of giving blood transfusions.
In the Philippines—as in other countries—the most common forms of cancer among women are in the breast and the cervix. Nobody really knows what causes breast cancer, although some link it with hormone activity. If a woman has her pituitary gland removed, this can check it, while removing the ovaries may deter its spread. On the other hand, men rarely suffer from this form of malignancy. If, however, they submit to a large dosage of female hormones—as in a “transsexual” operation—they run a much higher risk.
Statistics show that childbearing has its effect too. Women who marry and bear their first child while still young seem to reduce their risk, while women who do not have children are more likely to contract the disease. Nursing a baby may be a protection—although some dispute this. In the fishing communities of Hong Kong, some women nurse their babies only with the right breast. Studying the incidence of breast cancer in this group, investigators found that among those who contracted it later in life, a significant majority had cancer in the left—the unsuckled—breast.
Cancer of the cervix, on the other hand, is perhaps caused by irritation from an outside source—maybe even by sperm cells. According to statistics, girls who start their sex life early, between the ages of 12 and 16, run a higher risk of getting this kind of cancer. So do prostitutes and women with a promiscuous life-style. This type of cancer appears much more rarely among women of strict religious groups like the Parsees of India or the Muslims. Among women who remain single and live a morally clean life, it almost never appears.
Discoveries in the developing world have confirmed the findings in the West about the link between smoking and cancer. At a recent press conference in Manila, Australian doctor Nigel Gray of the International Union Against Cancer said that smoking can cause cancer of the mouth, throat, lips, bladder and lungs. It is also linked with several noncancerous diseases.
Doctor Takeshi Hariyama of Japan stated at the same conference that, while there is a strong suspicion of a link between cancer and many other things, the most positive proof by far of cause and effect is the link between smoking and lung cancer. As the third world becomes more Westernized, the scourge is spreading in the same way that it did in the West. Today, lung cancer is the biggest killer cancer among men in the Philippines, Japan and many other lands, largely due to the smoking habit.
Benefiting from the Light Shed
While cancer is still a most serious affliction, it is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was. In literature on the subject, one often sees phrases like “very high rate of recovery, particularly if discovered early.” Research is going on in the East and the West to try to improve cures. In Japan, a vaccine is being developed against cancer-causing hepatitis B, while in the Philippines, money has been set aside to promote research into local plants with anti-tumor properties. Different combinations of chemotherapy (treatment with chemicals) and immunotherapy (utilizing the body’s immunological system), along with radiation and surgery, are being tried to improve the treatment and the cure of the disease.
Meanwhile, the light shed on the part played by the individual and the environment is helpful. It is encouraging that some of the fastest-spreading kinds of cancer can be largely avoided merely by not smoking or by not chewing betel nut. Cancer of the cervix is said to be 100 percent curable, if detected early by simple clinical tests available in most countries. Even breast cancer can be detected early by an easily learned technique of self-examination.
Additionally, there is value in knowing that strong sunlight can induce skin tumors. Also, since eating a balanced diet, with plenty of iron and green and yellow vegetables, avoiding moldy food and taking a daily bath—as well as leading a clean and moral life—may prevent the spread of the scourge, a person certainly is not a loser when he does such things. This is true regardless of what future cancer research may bring to light.
Of course, many causes of cancer are as yet unknown, and there are no miracle drugs or diets, no “sure cures,” for it. However, we can, and should, take all reasonable precautions to avoid the sickness, and we should be on the alert for any early warning signals. Best of all, we can be encouraged by God’s promise that all illness is only with us temporarily. Under God’s rule by Christ Jesus this scourge of mankind will be gone forever.—Rev. 21:4, 5.