July 16, 2008

Tony Snow’s Cancer: Is There a Lesson for Us?

As a two-time cancer survivor, I would love to see Tony Snow's tragic death last week help raise awareness about colorectal cancer. The former White House press secretary was just three years younger than me and I know all too well how tough his battle was. Sadly, it's one that 50,000 Americans lose each year.

When famous people like Snow or journalist Tim Russert pass away, their deaths often inspire news coverage about their particular disease. That's good because it helps educate the public. Unfortunately, the articles often focus on early detection or the latest treatments.

As someone who detected her first cancer early and lives with many complications from various treatments, I know there's an infinitely better approach. It's cheaper, less painful, and comes with fewer side effects. It's called prevention. I would be thrilled if Tony Snow's death inspired a serious discussion about cancer prevention. That's the best hope any of us have for a long, healthy life.

One way we can help prevent cancer _ in addition to not smoking, keeping slim, exercising and not drinking _ is to eat right. But what constitutes "eating right" is often up for debate.

Food manufacturers and their lobbyists like to pretend that even the most unhealthful foods _ like hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats _ are OK in moderation. And anyone with a pepperoni addiction likes to pretend that jogging three miles a day will keep them healthy. But late last year, the game was up.

That's when two prestigious cancer research organizations _ the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research _ released a landmark report on diet and cancer risk. The scientists announced that when it comes to colon cancer, there is absolutely no amount of processed meat that's safe to eat.

In fact, according to researchers, just one 50-gram serving of bacon, sausage, deli meats, or other processed meat (think one hot dog) daily increases our risk of colorectal cancer, on average, by 21 percent. Do the math. If your spouse or your kids are eating ham slices or hot dogs just a couple of times a week, they are significantly increasing their risk of colon cancer.

What is it about processed meats that can cause cancer? Scientists actually aren't certain. Processed meats contain plenty of fat, especially saturated fat, as well as cholesterol, salt and heme iron, which promotes the production of carcinogens. The nitrites used as preservatives, coloring or flavoring agents can also produce carcinogens _ as can food preparation such as grilling at high temperatures.

Meanwhile, Americans go on blindly eating processed meats. In 2006, we wolfed down 1.5 billion pounds of hot dogs. Sixty-two percent of all Americans eat some form of processed pork, the average person eating 32 pounds of it a year. Children are at particular risk as lifelong eating habits are established during childhood and school menus are packed with processed meats.

I wish I had known how I was risking my health by eating processed meats through so much of my life. When I finally stopped eating meat _ too late to help prevent the cancer _ it was because of concern over how animals are treated on factory farms. But I quickly learned that vegetarian diets could alleviate an enormous amount of human suffering as well. Now, when I see a teenage girl smoking a cigarette or a young boy eating a hot dog, I wish I had the nerve to tell them what I've learned the hard way.

Processed meats aren't the only unsafe foods _ no animal products are good for us. They increase our risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and numerous other conditions. And no medicine can reduce the risk of these diseases the way a healthful diet rich in whole plant foods like beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables can.

So, if there's one thing you can do to help keep your family healthy, it's to think about replacing meats with healthier choices. Then, the next time you see a headline about a favorite newscaster or politician who's succumbed to cancer, you'll know you're doing the best you can do.