Monday, January 07, 2008
Preventing cancer in 2008
I went to three funerals in 2007. Two were for cancer patients.

The first was back in June. Eight-year-old Tony Nata lost his battle with leukemia. I first met him when we were doing a story on the smallest cancer patients searching for treatment after Hurricane Katrina shut down Children's Hospital in New Orleans, where Tony was undergoing chemotherapy. I'll never forget the tears rolling down his face as he bravely and quietly underwent yet another medical exam. His family thought he had beaten cancer already, but it came back. And even though his sister Ali donated bone marrow, which put his cancer in remission for the second time, his reprieve didn't last. The cancer came back yet again, and this time little Tony couldn't fight it off.

The last funeral I went to in 2007 was just a few weeks ago, when everyone in CNN's Medical Unit said goodbye to a beloved colleague, Rhonda Grayson. She had beaten blood cancer almost two decades ago but then learned she had bladder cancer last January. She fought a good fight and never lost her optimistic outlook, but this was a battle she couldn't win. We're left with the memory of a wonderful friend with a gorgeous smile.

I've been covering medical news for eight years and counting and followed many cancer stories. I can't tell you how often I've produced segments on ways to lower the risk of getting cancer (lose weight, exercise, eat more fruits & vegetables). But like some of you, I don't necessarily follow the advice.

Tony's passing and Rhonda's declining health certainly had an impact on me. Cancer was on my mind all year long. Then in the fall, the World Cancer Research Fund released a report on cancer prevention. It reiterated a lot of what we already knew, but also had some new information. I don't know why it had more impact on me than previous reports but it did.

Some of the recommendations:
- reducing your salt intake (I'm a salt-a-holic)
- eating less than 18 ounces of red meat a week (that includes beef, pork, lamb & processed meats that have been cured or smoked or have chemicals preservatives)
- avoid gaining weight throughout adulthood (this may be one of the most important ways to protect against cancer, and something I haven't been able to do)
- exercise (60 minutes of moderate or 30 minutes of vigorous exercise daily)

Despite having a family history of several cancers, I've been lucky so far. And there's probably very little Rhonda or Tony could have done to prevent getting cancer - sometimes it's just in your genes. But I think knowing how these two people lost the cancer battle and the World Cancer Research Fund report once again spelling out what one can do reduce the risk of this dreaded disease finally made a light bulb turn on in my head.

So in 2008, I don't have any resolutions - instead, I'm going to try to practice what I preach. I'm going to stick to two to three servings of red meat per week. I will reach for the salt shaker as little as possible. I'll avoid some of my favorite "processed" salami and bacon, as best I can. I will try to finally start exercising on a regular basis and maybe even shed a few of the way too many pounds I've accumulated over the years. If I succeed, I'll have the added benefit of reducing my risk of heart disease and stroke (cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in men and women in the U.S.).

Will you be changing any health habits to reduce your chance of getting cancer? Is cancer something that factors into your New Year's resolutions?

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My father was slender all his life. He rarely ever caught a cold and when he did, it'd last two days at most. He never smoked much less drank and he walked with my mother every morning for an hour. He ate the same as my mother, lots of fruits and vegetables yet he contracted cancer at the age of 75. There was no history of cancer on his side of the family (his brother died from lung cancer but he was a heavy smoker). My father's cancer was very agressive with unknown origin that he passed within 3 months of his diagnosis (he had abdominal pains for 4 months which was assumed to be indegestion since he was so fit before they discovered he had cancer).

We can do our best to live a healthy life but sometimes it's not enough.
With cancer I always figured it would be more of a when, then if I get it. I have five possible indicators that put me at a higher risk. Though my salt intake, eating fruits and vegetables, and limiting red meat are not any of them. But I guess my when may be upon me, because Friday I got a call to get a follow up compression x-ray and ultrasound.
Hi, My name is Greg and I too have bladder cancer having started the cancer Challenges in 1998 with Kidney Cancer.

I saw your comments on Rhonda on Google and you might wish to contribute toour site where we have an IN MEMORIAM page - Rhonda is recorded at: Do contribute to her memory with comments, articles or pictures that you want to add.
Have a look at the rest of the site whilst you are there - you never know but you may have a friend or associate we can help.

There is a Chinese proverb which claims that you are alive for as long as you are remembered - prolongue Rhonda's memory at

Greg L-W.
Chepstow, Britain.
Your blog is so interesting!

Yes, I am changing my health habits to reduce my chances of getting cancer. I'm also focusing on preventing heart disease. If I combine the two it's just got to lead to weight loss. I hate to be a downer and bring this up, but it I want to share it so people will take precautions even if they feel they don't need to. I was told, even if there is no family history of cancer there is always that chance you could be the one to start that family history...unfortunately.

The deaths of these people you mention are very sad and unfair. I'm sorry you lost some friends. I think we're all touched by cancer in some way. It's a depressing fact of life. What amazes me is the bravery most cancer patients have. I hope if I am one of cancer's victims I can be as brave as some of these children I've seen. I have learned so much from them. I take comfort in knowing that anyone who gets cancer today has a better chance of surviving than if he/she would have gotten it 25 years ago. The death rates from certain cancers are definitely going down and that is a positive thing. I am praying that our children will have it better because of all the research that is being done, new treatments being implemented, new drugs, clinical trials, and just because of people like you who are trying to make the world a better place by educating and informing us. It is getting better and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I wish you success, Dr. Gupta, and continued motivation. Constantly remind yourself of the good you are doing for your body and for everyone around you if you stay healthy and be the best person you can be. Stay true to this goal for the rest of your life and not just 2008. I wish the same for everyone.
Dear Miriam Falco :-)

I just finished reading a great story.

My bad habit is that I really enjoy the instant foods. For example, instant ramen(it's a kind of noodle), fried potatoes etc. Problems of those instant foods contain much salt and trans fat, so I'll make my mind to quit eating
instant foods, in the New Year.
Also stress is the cause of cancer so when I'm under the stress I'll try to solve the stress by the affirmative way of thinking. Thanks so much for share this with us. Take care. Have a great week.
Hello, Health Concerner
I have been reading quite a lot about cancer diagnose. Most people found themselves to have cancer in later stage. My aunt passed away about ten years old with liver cancer. She was a healty person, hardly got sick, exercised every morning, ate healthy, until cancer came from the middle of nowhere and plague her life with very short period of time. My mother got diagnose with breast cancer, but it was very early stage, so she managed to get rid of it. In the high medical technological world, is there anyway to do periodic test to see if you have any type of cancer appears in your body. I know blood test could tell something....then also related to health insurance coverage. I feel like people should be able to know if they have cancer early, not until someone collapse like Ronda.....
Excellent post – you really bring home cancer’s human cost while offering a clear and empowering message that’s borne out by research. It’s a sad truth that people who live healthy lifestyles can and do get cancer – when it comes to this disease, there simply are no absolute guarantees. But we do know that that making some basic, everyday changes to how we live can lower our risk significantly. Unfortunately, surveys show that many Americans are so overwhelmed with information about cancer that they don't know where to start.

That’s where the report you mention comes in, which can be read in its entirety or downloaded for free at, the website of the American Institute for Cancer Research. (AICR is what the World Cancer Research Fund is called here in the US.) As you note, the report is a massive project based on thousands of studies, and I encourage your readers – especially those who think the science on cancer is too confusing and contradictory -- to check it out and see what scientists identify as the most important steps to take.

AICR Nutrition Advisor Karen Collins, MS, RD,
Washington, DC
It's sad to see anyone suffering from grave diseases like cancer. I lost my mother to lymphoma,and there are many types of Hodgkin and Non-Hodgkin Lymphomas. My mother was healthy and in just 3 months(from the time of diagnosis) she was gone. It was more than a decade ago and that too it happened in India. Even in US, for some form of lymphomas, the future is very bleak so says my Doctor friend who is a Hematologist(who treats Lymphomas,luekemias,myelomas,does Bone Marrow Transplant also Stem Cell Research). Different types of lymphomas look the same under a microscope but only when looked at molecular level, they appear distinct.

The important information that is missing in all the articles here is "Cancer is a polygenic disorder". Meaning, more than one gene contribute to causing it unlike the diseases Huntington or DMD(Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy)which is caused by a mutation in a single gene. This is what poses the problem to attack only the cancer cells and not the healthy cells. Even a small change in an amino acid sequence can have a drastic effect on the functionality of the protein.

There is reaserch on one side. Poor Professors who do research, in Univ labs, on meagre salaries unless they receive Nobel Prize which comes with hefty amount. They are doing research just for love(for the subject of course).

On the other side of the table is Pharmaceutical/Biotech industries which fund many labs in Univs and hence preserve "ALL THE RIGHTS" over whatever research is carried in those labs. This puts a block for growth in the medical/research field as these companies want to make profit/money.

Even if some testing is developed in a research lab funded by some pharmaceutical company, these companies charge a hefty amount for all research labs and other private companies who want to use the testing for further research.

Let me give you an example. Myriad Genetics, that developed the sequence for BRCA1&BRCA2(causing breast/ovarian cancer) charges roughly $3000 for the testing if a woman wants to know if she carries the mutant gene. It developed BRCA2 sequence with European partners and they filed a case and now BRCA2 is freely available to all research labs but not BRCA1. Myriad, even now, charges $1500 all the research labs that are funded by NIH otherwise it's more!

The beauty of this testing is, the Myriad makes you sign a waiver that even if you test negative, it doesn't guarantee clean bill of health. Meaning you may still develop cancer! Because the testing fails to detect all the cancer causing agents.

Here in US patenting is also messed up. Without even knowing the function of the gene, people apply for patents. What are they protecting? This trajedy happened in the case of AIDS/HIV. Ventor from Human Genome Sciences first isolated the gene CCR5 but didn't know the function of this gene that play a vital role in AIDS/HIV when he applied for patent. Around the same time, scientists from other labs found what exactly the gene does but it was too late because Ventor's patent got okayed!!!!

There are lot of bio-tech companies which develop drugs enthusiastically without the proper knowledge, to make profit. It is because of this lack of knowledge of what exactly the genes do, the drugs develped on trial and error method have side effects. Regeneron, a Colorado based Pharma. co, developed a trial drug to target ALS(Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease). Two groups were on trials and the drug failed but interestingly had a side effect:people who were on trial lost weight! So finally Regeneron developed a modified version of the drug as a weight loss therapy.

There are many more interesting battles between research institutions and drug companies and among drug companies themselves.

Cancer cells, like any normal cells, need nutrients to grow. Hence current research targets nutritional life styles. Cancer cells derive these nutrients from the new blood vessels that grow near them. By preventing the growth formation of these blood vessels, you literally starve cancer cells to death. These growth inhibitors are in the last stage of clinical trials.

But still it's a long way to go. There is a wide gap between Science(pure research not aimed for commercial benefits) and bio-tech industries which is a commercial business.

Only when this scenario changes, can we see a brighter future, in terms of health, for US people and also those countries(developing and under developed)where healthcare is probably at the end of or not even in the list. Until then we will see/witness our loved ones lose the battle to some form of cancer or other diseases despite all the advancements in science & technology.

Wish everyone to lead a wonderful, healthy, and stress-free life. Stress & problems are a part of life but it itself shouldn't become life. All we have to do is channelise them in the right direction. Sorry for the lengthy mail but i hope it benefits atleast one person. More is welcome:-)
Wonderful post! Your post is a great reminder that cancer always lurks in the background and we all have to be mindful of that. Some risks we can do something about and some we can not.

As a medical writer and blogger, one of my goals is to promote awareness for issues important to the health of kids and families - and childhood cancer awareness tops that list. You'd be amazed by what is occurring in the child cancer world - there are some amazing unsung heros with kids helping kids that I try to promote as much as possible.

Tony's story reminds us all that cancer strikes all ages. What saddens me, though, is that too many people become blind to the risk. They really think "it can't happen to me" or "I don't have any risk factors, so why worry". I'm reminded of a e-conversation I had recently where an editor told me she did not want to run a piece I had written on childhood cancer advocacy because "it only hits a select group of people". It is that thinking we have to stop. Childhood cancer, and cancer in general, affects all of us. The more we get the world out the more we can all help to make sure there are fewer stories like Tony's. Here's the link to the piece this editor didn't run but has been printed throughout New England and on my website:

Helping Kids With Neuroblastoma

My resolution is to not only continue to lead a healthy life to minimize my cancer risk but to do what I can to continue to get the word out that there are kids who need help - kids like Tony.

Thanks again for a great post.

Dr. Gwenn
Thank you so much for bringing attention to healthy changes that can help prevent devastating disease. The beginning of the year is a perfect time to commit to small changes that can add up and make a big difference.

In another study published this week,researchers reported 4 ways to add 14 years to one's life: don't smoke, drink alcohol in moderation, exercise at least 30 minutes a day, and eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Many of these actions will likely also decrease the risk of cancer.

With all this information available, we should all take steps to live longer and healthier lives! Making a few of the recommended changes is better than making none at all. And following these recommendations gradually may make it easier to stick to a new routine.

Like you, I've had several friends and colleagues who died from cancer at young ages. It's true that living a healthy lifestyle may not prevent cancer and other diseases, but it sure won't hurt. My goal this year is also to get more much-needed exercise. Best of luck in meeting your goals as well.
My mother was just diagnosed with AML this last friday. Its been devestating for her and I. She just started undergoing aggressive chemotherapy yesterday and is holding on strong thus far. Dr Gupta, what recommendations do you have for her? I want to ensure a good recovery. Leukemia is just a disease that sneaks up on those who least expect it. My mother is a physical therapist and works like a horse every single week putting in 50-60hours + she walks 5 miles per day. This is in conjunction with multivitamins and what I would consider a very strict and healthy diet...especially when compared to what we as Americans eat daily. There is no cure, but we can prolong our lives and just try to be as healthy as possible.

We must be strong.
My name is Dr Chivs i am from Zimbabwe. Cancer is considered to be a serious infection and personally i have had experiences with it as my grandmother had cancer on her right chick and it was diagnosed late so the doctors could not do much to save her life. She died in 1998 afetr being seriously ill and that was a painful experience. Research has proved that the infection runs in genes and it is very advisable for everyone to get regular tests at least twice a year and my remedy to this epidemic would be regular exrcise be it cadio, weights, jogging or just some sport to make you sweat at least for 30 minutes daily, eats lots of fruit and vegetables, use the sauna if possible as this detoxifies the body and take time to rest the body and mind as its proved that when we overwork our body we not only strain our muscles but the chances of surcumbing to illness are excelareted. So i would urge all people of all nations , young and old to exercise and have regular health check-ups as infections like cancers can be silent killers. Compliments of the season and Special thanks goes to Dr Gupta for this colum.
Thank you for posting on this very important subject. I recently heard from a cousin that two of his friends developed brain cancer. They are both in their early 20s and what they have in common is constantly wearing their Bluetooth headsets. There is talk that this caused/contributed to their cancer development. Are there any studies on this? I don't wear my Bluetooth headset all the time but it is still disturbing to know this could happen. We are exposed to things we don't even really know about or understand. We should still do everything in our power to reduce our vulnerability to disease, but we can't do anything about that which we are unaware.

Marie Rose
Chevy Chase, MD
On July 17, 2007 at the age of 30 I began my fight against cancer. My diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma has rocked my world. Cancer not only factors into my New Years resolution, it will shape every decision, every hope and every dream I have for my future. Most importantly it will have a huge effect on the way I vote in 2008.

My fight with cancer has included chemo, radiation, and fertility concerns; but it has also been a battle with insurance. What's covered, what's not. The fact that Hodgkin’s will always be my preexisting condition, will affect me forever.

Many young people think their invincible...I did. I was training for a triathlon and had no symptoms aside from a small lump when I was diagnosed. I would implore everyone to make routine physicals part of your 2008 resolution. Catching my cancer early has undoubtly save my life.
Cancer is a horrible disease. I have had two sisters-in-laws and a nephew die from it. All of them died after undergoing aggressive chemo therapy. Most of the current chemo treatment are a variations of chemical poisons used during WW I. From what I can determine, the chemo therapy seems to be cure about 15% of treated patients. Currently no one can determine which 15% is helped. Since these drugs are really poisons, they make everyone sick who takes them.

What to do prevent cancer? No one knows for sure. However I beleive nutrition and supplements can play a role. Here is a good web site to start:
I'm so sick of cancer. 2007 has been full of friends and family getting cancer. My dad with prostate, good friend with returning stage four breast cancer, my husbands friend with brain cancer (recently pasted away), cousin (only 4 yrs old) with luekemia (past away in 2007). I really can't believe it. Seems like the amount of people with cancer is going up. Is that true? I really think it is environmental...look at all the pesticides we eat (quantities are more and more), electrical waves of all types (look what cell phones are doing to the bees), pollution (more and more cars, etc). It's very overwelming. All I can do is try to eat as much organic and be as environmental as possible. I worry for our future and my kids futures.
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