May 28, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)


My final word, before I'm done,

Is 'Cancer can be rather fun.'

Thanks to the nurses and Nye Bevan

The NHS is quite like heaven

Provided one confronts the tumor

With a sufficient sense of humor.

I know that cancer often kills,

But so do cars and sleeping pills;

And it can hurt one till one sweats,

So can bad teeth and unpaid debts.

J.B.S. Haldane, 1964

Carcinogens are substances that can cause cancer. If you would like to avoid them completely, forget it; it is impossible. There are carcinogens all around us, in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. We are all exposed to carcinogenic ionizing radiation just by standing still. If you are standing in the sun, you are exposed to carcinogenic ultraviolet rays. All ionizing radiation, including ultraviolet, can damage cell DNA and produce mutations. Some mutations can cause cancer.

Don't let it bother you. The saving grace is that your chance of getting carcinogen-induced cancer before you die is related to the amount of a carcinogen that you are exposed to and the age at which you are exposed. Your heredity may determine how susceptible you are to carcinogens. The younger you are, the greater the cancer-causing effect; but the cancer will probably not occur until you get much older. Most carcinogens, but not all, are also mutagens. They will change genes. Small changes in genes are corrected by a natural repair mechanism, but there are limits, and the more of a carcinogen you get, the greater the chance of your getting cancer.

There are some carcinogens that cannot be avoided such as ionizing radiation from the sun and the earth. If you turn on a geiger counter, you will hear an occasional click when something ionizes the detector. Those clicks represent what your body is getting all of the time. There are carcinogens in ALL food. However some foods have much more than others.

All broiled or smoked foods have substantial amounts of carcinogenic hydrocarbons. If you are wise, you will not eat too much of these; but don't worry over that occasional charcoal broiled steak.

Peanuts, a wonderful food, may contain aflatoxin. Aflatoxin is produced by a fungus that is normally present in the soil. It is fairly easy to tell whether your peanuts might have this carcinogen; they will be brown. If you avoid eating brown peanuts, you can avoid most of that carcinogen. Tell your kids to throw away the brown ones. It's more important that your kids do this than that you do. I don't worry about it because, at my age, it doesn't make much of a difference. It usually takes 20 years or longer for carcinogens to exert their effect and I'm pretty sure that I'm not going to last that much longer. The white peanuts do taste better, which is another good reason to throw the brown ones away.

If you are a tobacco user, forget what I have just said. A tobacco user is exposed to such a massive amount of carcinogen that everything else is piddling. I can illustrate this very simply: A woman's chance of getting breast cancer in her lifetime is about one in ten. When women started smoking, the death rate from lung cancer started rising so that now more women die of lung cancer due to smoking than do of breast cancer. However, more than twice as many men die of cigarette smoking caused lung cancer than do women. I have not considered the number of smokers who die of heart disease, which tobacco causes, before they can get lung cancer. It is a substantial number.

Another powerful carcinogen is marijuana smoke. The tars from marijuana smoke are more potent carcinogens than those produced by tobacco. The saving grace is that not many people smoke two or more packs a day of marijuana cigarettes. A major problem in evaluating anything associated with marijuana is that it is illegal. Because it is illegal, there are no statistics to correlate anything with marijuana smoking.

If the thought that you are continually exposed to cancer causing substances, albeit in small quantities, panics you, remember this: You are exposed to death or mutilation every time that you ride in an automobile, fly in an airplane, ride in a boat. Even if you do nothing, you are always subjected to the ravages of ageing. In other words, you are not going to get out of this world alive, so you might as well accept the inevitable hazards. It is also a good idea to not take any unnecessary risks such as careless driving, driving under the influence, tobacco and dangerous drugs. Also, don't stand in front of a loaded gun. There are also worse ways of dying than of cancer.

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