10/18/2012 08:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Imagine a World without Cancer

I just finished a new book (published by Rodale!) by Margaret I. Cuomo, MD, called A World without Cancer, and I highly recommend it. As a doctor, Cuomo is able to explain cancer--its origins in the body, its treatments, its potential cures, and the challenges of finding solutions--with a clarity that is refreshing and highly informative. Her answer? We can do better. And doing better starts with prevention.

While we've spent billions in research, and people have donated time and money, run races, and sold lemonade, it's actually shocking and disturbing how little progress we've made. Oh, there are plenty of reasons, and Dr. Cuomo explains them all. But like the lady she is, she keeps the debate polite and the suggestions constructive.

It occurred to me while reading the book that we often use the word prevention differently. The government and insurance companies define prevention as early detection procedures, which fit very nicely into our current medical paradigm (pay for procedures, not results). This method often leads to expensive and painful treatments that are worse than the disease itself and which, for a cost of a million dollars, "might" extend a patient's life for a few months. (Which, to me, begs the question of having a choice of four more months to live while being inundated with invasive treatments or a million dollars--which would you choose?)

I me, the more accurate definition of prevention is more like the one my grandfather had in mind when he launched Prevention magazine 62 years ago: staying healthy and not getting sick in the first place!

That sort of prevention is harder for hospitals and insurance companies to make money from! But it would make our quality of life better along the way. We would eat better, we'd play more, our environment would be cleaner, and it would be a heck of a lot easier to get around on bicycles.

Even so, I can't help but wonder if we can ever eradicate cancer completely. For that, we'd have to go even deeper into prevention and heal the very things that cause people to harm themselves and each other, even when they do know better.

Take my mother, for instance. She died of breast cancer three years ago, after fighting it for over 20 years. She was not overweight. She ate healthfully. She kept active. But she drank. And now we know that drinking alcohol can cause cancer. Why did she drink? Was it the grief over my brother's dying from AIDS that she never quite recovered from? Was it my father's tragic death? Something caused her to need alcohol more than she needed to live, even though she believed she was fighting to live. While there is very strong evidence that drinking increases the risk of certain cancers, there is much less research (any?) on the impact of emotions on particular diseases.

While Americans prefer to avoid emotional responsibility and would rather look at external reasons and facts (logic and reason) in causation, I will go out on a limb and say something that the lovely Margaret Cuomo probably would not: If we lived by external facts and logic and reason alone, we would ALREADY have banned lawn chemicals, since they are KNOWN to cause childhood leukemia. And yet, none of that "cure for cancer" or "war on cancer" money is ever going to lobby to have lawn chemicals banned. No one wants to interfere with a man's primal right to a weed-free lawn (or farm field, for that matter). Fear and denial are emotions, too.

I can imagine a world without cancer. But it would require all of us to think differently, act differently, and be less afraid of getting cancer and more afraid of accepting the status quo.


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