Cancer, Diet, and Macrobiotics
Nearly sixty years ago, when I first came to the United States, the expected rate of people who would get cancer in their lifetime was about one out of eight. Today this rate has risen to nearly one in two men and one in three women (see Table 1). This year more than 559,000 Americans will die of cancer, and another 1,445,000 new cases will be detected. After decades of increasing mortality rates, the number of deaths from cancer has declined slightly for the first time, reflecting changes in dietary practice, less smoking, and better medical treatment. Altogether, more than 100 million Americans now living will eventually get the disease. Along with cardiovascular disease and medical error, cancer is one of the three major causes of death in modern society.
While the mortality rate from some cancers—for example, stomach, cervix, and rectum—has declined in the United States, it has steeply risen for others, notably lung, melanoma, prostate, multiple myloma, and brain tumors (see Table 2).
Despite ever more sophisticated methods of diagnosis and treatment, the consensus is that the War on Cancer declared in 1971 is being lost. "My overall assessment is that the national cancer program must be judged a qualified failure," Dr. John Bailer, who served on the staff of the National Cancer Institute for twenty years and was editor of the New En gland Journal of Medicine, contends. "The five-year survival statistics of the American Cancer Society are very misleading. They now count things that are not cancer, and, because we are able to diagnose at an earlier stage of the disease, patients falsely appear to live longer. Our whole cancer research in the past twenty years has been a total failure. More people over thirty are dying from cancer than ever before . . . More women with mild or benign diseases are being included in statistics and reported as being ‘cured.’ When government officials point to survival figures and say they are winning the war against cancer they are using those survival rates improperly."
The United States is not unique in losing the battle against cancer. Infact, among the nations of the world, it ranks in the middle. Twenty-three of the fifty countries recently surveyed had higher mortality rates than the United States for cancer among men, and sixteen had higher rates among women. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Luxembourg had the highest death rates for men, while Denmark, Scotland, and Hungary had the highest for women.
Clearly, cancer is one of the great levelers of the modern age. It strikes high and low, rich and poor, male and female, young and old, black and white, Westerner and Easterner, Democrat and Republican, Muslim and Jew, saint and sinner. There is hardly a family today untouched.
Despite the optimistic reports of the National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society, the nation has yet to develop a solid campaign of primary prevention. The focus remains on diagnosis and screening (which are often harmful and cancer-causing in themselves) and on treatment with drugs, surgery, and radiation, which have also been implicated in increasing the risk of the disease.
According to the International Agency for Research in Cancer, "Eighty to 90 percent of human cancer is determined environmentally and thus theoretically avoidable. These include the modern diet high in animal products and low in whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables; excessive exposure to sunlight, workplace hazards, pollution, toxic products; artificial electromagnetic radiation; and exposure to medical procedures and pharmaceuticals." "Despite the general recognition that 85 percent of all cancers is caused by environmental influences," Hans Ruesch, a medical historian, notes, "less than 10 percent of the National Cancer Institute bud get is given to environmental causes. And despite the recognition that the majority of environmental causes are linked to nutrition, less than 1 percent of the NCI bud get is devoted to nutrition studies."
"In our culture, treating disease is enormously profitable," Dr. Robert Sharpe points out. The market in cancer therapies in the United States, Europe, and Japan makes tens of billions of dollars profit annually and is growing at over 10 percent each year. "Preventing the disease benefits no one except the patient. Just as the drug industry thrives on the ‘pill for every ill’ mentality, so many of the leading medical charities are financially sustained by the dream of a miracle cure, just around the corner."
OTHER HEALTH TRENDS
Other chronic and degenerative illnesses are also on the rise. In the last twenty-five years, AIDS has spread around the world, affecting tens of millions of people. Though primarily an immune-deficiency disorder, AIDS is related to cancer, and many AIDS patients come down with Kaposi’s sarcoma (a form of skin cancer), lymphoma, and other malignancies.
One of the most dramatic increases in recent decades has been in the area of sexual disorders. According to the British Medical Association, the number of new cases of venereal disease has risen 1,700 percent since 1957. In the United States, syphilis rose one-third between 2007 and 2008. Around the world, herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have assumed epidemic proportions. This year it was widely reported in the United States that one in four teenage girls had an STD. Infertility is also on the rise. Over the last sixty-five years, average sperm counts in American males have dropped dramatically. An analysis of data collected from 1938 to 1990 by the National Institutes of Health indicates that sperm densities in the United States have exhibited an average annual decrease of 1.5 million sperm per milliliter of collected sample, or about 1.5 percent per year. Those in European countries have declined at about twice that rate (3.1 percent per year). Another study of otherwise healthy college males showed that 23 percent were functionally sterile. The number of cesarean sections has doubled in the last ten years, accounting for 30 percent of all births. The risk of death for C-sections is also about four times higher than for vaginal births even if there is no medical emergency. Women are also about three times as liable to suffer severe complications or experience difficulties during subsequent births.
Moreover, more than 550,000 American women, many of childbearing age, currently have their ovaries or uteruses surgically removed each year, primarily because of cancer or the fear of cancer. Many of these are prophylactic operations in completely healthy women who have been told that their risk of developing cancer will be reduced. By age sixty-five, a majority of American women have lost their wombs. Similar trends are now spreading worldwide. According to many medical experts, more than 90 percent of hysterectomies are unnecessary, and about 40 percent of the time, the ovaries are also needlessly removed during this procedure.
In the last few years, obesity has been declared the world’s number one health problem by the World Health Organization. It is an underlying condition not only for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and many other ills, but also for many cancers, including breast cancer, colon cancer, and cancer of the esophagus, thyroid, kidney, uterus, and gall bladder. In the United States, about two out of three adults are overweight or obese, and one of every three children falls into one of these brackets.
A host of new diseases has developed to challenge medical science and global health. Avian flu, SARS, and other acute respiratory diseases have killed hundreds of people, threatening to turn into worldwide pandemics. Meanwhile, old illnesses are coming back in more virulent form. New varieties of multiple-drug resistant pneumonia and staph and other common infections have been reported for which there is no medical relief available. Overprescription of antibiotics, antivirals, and other pharmaceuticals has enabled new, more deadly strains of microbes to evolve. Malaria, once believed to have been eradicated by modern medicine, has also proved invulnerable to many drugs and is spreading, with 2.7 million deaths annually. Tuberculosis, also once believed to have been conquered by new wonder drugs after World War II, has returned in new, virulent forms and causes an estimated 521,000 deaths globally each year.
Even the common cold, despite a much publicized medical campaign begun under President John F. Kennedy, remains largely immune to effective treatment. In fact, few major sicknesses, if any, can really be cured by modern methods. In some cases pain and other discomfort can be relieved and the symptoms temporarily diminished or controlled, but, fundamentally, illness cannot be cured. Prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and a host of treatments and procedures, including surgery and radiation, offer at best temporarily relief and, at worst, push the imbalance deeper into the body where it manifests in more serious form later.
Altogether, disease accounts for about 80 percent of all deaths worldwide. The rest are caused primarily by accident—often resulting from physical or mental decline—and social violence, including war, crime, and abuse and neglect of children, spouses, and the elderly. In the United States, more people have died in recent decades from homicide than have died on the battlefronts of foreign wars. Violence and terrorism are also on the rise in other parts of the world.
Like the human family, the planet as a whole is in urgent need of healing. The natural environment is being destroyed by the unchecked spread—metastases—of technology, development, and urbanization. Tropical rain forests and millions of species of plants and animals are vanishing. Desertification is spreading as topsoil becomes depleted and crops will no longer grow in soil saturated with harmful chemicals. The world’s nonrenewable resources are rapidly being depleted, radioactive wastes are accumulating, the air is contaminated by industrial and house hold pollutants, and the ozone shield that protects the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation is thinning. The ubiquity of artificial electromagnetic radiation—from nuclear energy to micro wave cooking, from hospital X-rays to Wi-Fi Internet connections, from satellites orbiting in space to cell phones—is creating a global field of ionizing and nonionizing particles whose effects on health and human evolution may not show up for generations. Climate change is now widely recognized as the major threat to the planet, including the continuation of our species. Unless we dramatically change our way of life, global warming threatens to melt the polar ice caps, raise sea levels, and lead to the extinction of millions of species. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts widespread crop failure, massive hunger and starvation, and the spread of epidemic disease (including different types of cancer) by the end of the century unless we go on a strict carbon diet and substantially reduce green house gas emissions.
Given these and many other trends, we can see that modern civilization as a whole is on the verge of self-destruction as a result of deep-seated chronic biological and spiritual degeneration. This includes virtually the entire world, both the industrialized and emerging countries. The time left to reverse direction and recover personal and planetary health is very short—practically speaking, about twenty-five years before the collapse becomes irreversible.
The problem of cancer cannot be viewed in isolation from these other trends. It is related to the overall decline of modern society, including the energy crisis, the environmental crisis, the world food crisis, the population crisis, the financial crisis, and many others. It offers us the chance to rethink our present understanding of health and sickness, of sustainable and unsustainable growth. It provides the opportunity to reexamine the basic premises of our way of life and to work together as members of a common planetary family to build a world of enduring health and peace.
CANCER TREATMENT IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
With the rise of the petrochemical industry in the United States and Western Europe in the early part of the twentieth century, surgery and pharmacology consolidated their triumph over other approaches to medicine. The spread of chemical agriculture and factory farming revolutionized patterns of food consumption in the industrialized world. Nutrition became relegated to the back Bunsen burner as genetics, biochemistry, and radiation techniques dominated medical research.
Despite the general neglect of dietary concerns, a host of international population studies emerged during the middle part of the century linking cancer with high fat intake, refined carbohydrates, chemical additives, and other nutritional variables. Building on the earlier reports of the colonial medical doctors and anthropologists, epidemiologists concluded that cultures and subcultures eating a traditional diet of whole grains, cooked vegetables, and fresh seasonal fruit remained largely cancer-free.
One of the clearest warnings was sounded by Frederick L. Hoffman, LL.D., cancer specialist and consulting statistician for the Prudential Life Insurance Company. In his 1937 volume, Cancer and Diet, he stated as follows:
I have come to the essential conclusion that there has been a decided increase in the cancer death rate and progressively so during the last century ending with 1930. From this I reflect that the profound changes in dietary habits and nutritional condition of the population taking place during the intervening years have been world wide and due to the rapid and almost universal introduction of modified food products, conserved or preserved, refrigerated or sterilized, colored or modified, aside from positive adulteration by the addition of injurious mineral substances close to being of a poisonous nature. To a diminishing extent food is being consumed in its natural state, at least by urban populations everywhere, and to a lesser degree also among persons in rural communities.
In the 1940s and 1950s, laboratory studies on mice and other animals began to confirm these findings. Also, several European countries experienced a significant drop in cancer mortality rates during World Wars I and II when meat, dairy food, and eggs became scarce and local populations were forced to survive on brown bread, oats and barley meal, and homegrown produce.
Following World War II, frozen and enriched foods became more widely available; many tropical and subtropical foods such as oranges, grapefruits, and pineapples found their way to the daily breakfast table; and soft drinks, ice cream, candy bars, pizza, hamburgers, french fries, potato chips, and other fast foods became a way of life. As cancer rates climbed, the medical profession stepped up its technological arsenal. In 1971 President Nixon formally declared war on the disease and commissioned the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to eradicate it. However, this mobilization largely excluded dietary means.
In twenty-five hundred years, since cancer was first described in ancient Greece, medicine had come full circle. In Epidemics, Book I, Hippocrates cited factors for the physician to consider in making diagnoses and recommending treatment. At the head of the list comes "what food is given to him [the patient] and who gives it," followed by conditions of the climate and local environment, and the patient’s customs, mode of life, pursuits, age, speech, mannerisms, silences, thoughts, sleeping patterns, and dreams. Last on the list is physical symptoms. The priorities of modern medicine were just reversed. In 1973, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study, only 4 percent of the nation’s medical schools had an independent course in nutrition. Today the number has risen to about 66 percent, or two out of every three schools. A recent article on integrating alternative and complementary medicine into the medical school curricula published in the Journal of the American Medical Association strongly recommended that all medical students be introduced to macrobiotic food because it was the leading special diet for cancer patients.
A RETURN TO WHOLE FOODS
In nature, just as day follows night and valleys turn into mountains, societies regenerate after a long period of decay. In the modern world, the turning point came in the 1960s and 1970s when awareness of the deficiencies of the contemporary way of life and eating generated the natural foods and holistic health movements. Vegetarian and health foods had long been available, but their quality was often low and they appealed only to a tiny market. Suddenly, the postwar generation, which had become active in integrating southern lunch counters and preserving the rice fields of Vietnam from destruction by bombs and chemical reagents, became conscious of the food they ate and organized Food Days to consider the impact of modern agriculture on world hunger, energy conservation, and the quality of the environment.
By 1976 the concern for healthy food echoed through the halls of Congress. In its historic report, Dietary Goals for the United States, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs listed cancer as one of the six major degenerative diseases associated with improper nutrition. The report sent shock waves through the American food industry and medical profession. The cattle-and hog-growers’ associations, the poultry and egg producers, and the refined salt institute condemned the report.
However, at the highest national level, the door had been opened for a return to healthy food. Within the next five years dozens of medical and scientific associations corroborated the link between diet and degenerative disease. In his 1979 report, Healthy People: Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, the U.S. Surgeon General stated: "People should consume . . . less saturated fat and cholesterol, . . . less red meat, . . . [and] more complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, cereals, fruits and vegetables." The American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued similar statements. In 1981 a panel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported on the social impact of a change to a whole-grain diet. The scientists declared that changes in our eating habits could have significant beneficial effects on everything from land, water, fuel, and mineral use to the cost of living, unemployment, and the balance of international trade, as well as reduce coronary heart disease by 88 percent and cancer by 50 percent.
In 1982 the National Academy of Sciences issued a 472-page report, Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer, calling upon the general public to reduce substantially the consumption of foods high in saturated and unsaturated fat and increase the daily intake of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. The panel reviewed hundreds of current medical studies, associating long-term eating patterns with the development of most common cancers, including those of the colon, stomach, breast, lung, esophagus, ovary, and prostate. The thirteen-member scientific committee suggested that diet could be responsible for 30 to 40 percent of cancers in men and 60 percent in women. The flood of interest and activity in the relation between diet and cancer in the last ten years has been recounted in the preface to this newly revised edition.
LAUNCHING A HEALTH REVOLUTION
While, along with George Ohsawa and early macrobiotic pioneers, we had been promoting natural foods and a dietary approach to cancer, heart disease, and other ills since the 1950s, the role of the macrobiotic community in helping to launch the health revolution of the 1970s and 1980s is not widely known. In 1972 my wife, Aveline, invited Sadayo Kita, one of the leading Noh actors in Japan, to come to the United States to perform under the auspices of the East West Foundation (EWF), a cultural and educational foundation that we founded to promote international friendship and world peace. Mr. Kita’s public performances in Boston and New York were so successful that he returned on a regular basis. In connection with the EWF’s Noh program, I had the opportunity to meet Edwin Reischauer, one of the world’s leading scholars of Far Eastern culture. Professor Reischauer, who passed away in 1990, was born and grew up in Japan. He spoke fluent Japanese and served as ambassador to Japan under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s and, after returning to Harvard, headed up the East Asian Studies program. In 1973 my wife and I met with Professor Reischauer at the Seventh Inn, a macrobiotic restaurant in Boston. While our meeting, and others between Reischauer and my associates, focused largely on the meeting of East and West, the dialogue often turned to a discussion of macrobiotics in the United States and the relation of diet and health.
In The Japanese, published several years later by Harvard University Press, Professor Reischauer addressed the role that diet played in modern Japanese culture and history: "The traditional Japanese diet of rice, vegetables, and fish, which contrasts with the heavy consumption of meat and fat in the West, would be almost a perfect health diet if the Japanese did not insist on polishing their rice. This diet may account in part for the low incidence of heart disease as compared with Americans."
Noting the increase in size and weight of Japanese children following World War II, he went on: "Since World War II, Japanese children have increased several inches in height and many pounds in weight. Part of the increased height may be attributed to the straightening of legs, as Japanese sit less on the floor and more on chairs, but, like the weight, it may be chiefly due to a richer diet, which now includes dairy products and more meat and bread. Young Japanese today are quite visibly a bigger breed than their ancestors, and fat children, which were formerly never encountered, have become a commonplace sight."
Another of our friends at Harvard, Edward Kass, M.D., was one of the nation’s leading researchers on cardiovascular disease. As director of Channing Laboratories, Dr. Kass oversaw research, beginning in 1973 and extending on and off for more than a decade, on macrobiotic people living in Boston. With Frank Sacks, M.D., of Harvard Medical School; William Castelli, M.D., director of the Framingham Heart Study; and other colleagues, Dr. Kass reported on the protective health benefits of the macrobiotic dietary approach, particularly in lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure. These studies were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the New En gland Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Atherosclerosis, and other professional journals and were the turning point in the medical profession’s recognition of the relation of diet to heart disease. Popular publications such as Vogue, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times also ran articles featuring this research, and the notion that diet was connected to heart disease and thus could be prevented—and possibly relieved—spread throughout society.
Meanwhile, in 1976 the East West Journal (EWJ), a monthly magazine that my associates and I had started several years earlier, began publishing special issues devoted to cancer and diet. The editors, Sherman Goldman and Alex Jack, introduced case histories of individuals with cancer who had recovered using a macrobiotic diet, as well as theoretical articles by me and a series of investigative reports on the NCI, the American Cancer Society, and the pharmaceutical industry by journalist Peter Barry Chowka. The EWJ issues received national attention and helped to focus public attention on what was being done—or not being done—to end the cancer epidemic.
In 1976 the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in Washington, D.C., responding to this grassroots movement to address causes rather than symptoms of disease, began to hold hearings and take scientific testimony linking diet with heart disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases. One of the star witnesses was Dr. Gio B. Gori of the NCI. In his testimony (and subsequent candid interview with EWJ for which he got in trouble with his superiors), he suggested that diet was possibly the most important factor in the development of cancer and that more research should be focused in this direction. In Boston, meanwhile, the EWF, under the guidance of Edward Esko and Stephen Uprichard, published the first book-length report on macrobiotics and cancer, titled A Dietary Approach to Cancer According to the Principles of Macrobiotics. Through the EWF we also began to contact and in some cases meet with government policymakers, medical researchers, and scientists throughout the world in order to let them know about our approach, including many researchers who appeared before the dietary goals hearings or later became part of the National Academy of Sciences panel that compiled the landmark report, Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer.
Excerpted from The Cancer Prevention Diet By Michio Kushi and Alex Jack.
Copyright 2009 by Michio Kushi and Alex Jack.
Published in August 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.