Scientific American Scare Headline: Cancer "Is Spreading Throughout the Globe"

In what is basically an OK article focusing on new insights about how our scientific understanding of cancers has evolved during the 40 year "war on cancer," Scientific American can't resist the scare headline, about cancer "spreading." However, the article does correctly note: 

...mortality rates are in decline, falling 21 percent for men and about 12 percent for women between 1991 and 2006....

That is indeed good news. But there's even more good news which might have been mentioned - age-adjusted cancer incidence rates in the United States are also falling. That is, a lower percentage of people in various age categories are in fact getting cancer. (Cancer rates are age-adjusted because your risk of getting cancer goes up substantially the longer you live. Some researchers believe that if you live long enough you will eventually get some form of cancer. More on that below.) A study published last year in the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians reported:

Delay-adjusted cancer incidence rates decreased by 1.3% per year from 2000 through 2006 in males and by 0.5% per year from 1998 through 2006 in females. 

Why? Largely because fewer people are smoking, fewer women are taking hormone replacement therapy, and more people are getting screened for pre-cancerous colon polyps. 

To illustrate the problems that cancer is causing poor countries, the Scientific American article ends:

And the disease has made serious inroads into other countries that have far fewer resources to manage it. In places where even general practitioners are few and far between, such as Rwanda, well-equipped oncologists are practically an anomaly, writes journalist Martin Enserink this week in Science. In some of the world's poorest countries about nine in 10 children diagnosed with leukemia will die from the disease, whereas in Western Europe survival is about 85 percent, he reports.

Well, yes, that is a heart-wrenching problem. But when it comes to health care problems in Rwanda, consider that according to the World Health Organization that life expectancy at birth in Rwanda is 51 years for men and 53 years for women; probability of dying before age 5 is 160 out of 1,000; the probability of dying between 15 and 60 years of age is 414 out 1,000 men and 360 out of 1,000 women.

By comparison, in the cancer-riddled United States life expectancy is 75 years for men and 80 years for women; the probability of dying before age 5 is 8 out 1,000; and the probability of dying between ages 15 and 60 is 137 out of 1,000 men and 80 out of 1,000 women. 

So why would cancer be "spreading" worldwide? Chiefly two reasons: (1) the adoption of more western lifestyles, and (2) increasing life expectancy. 

One prevalent hypothesis about how western lifestyles promote cancer incidence is that it leads people to become fatter and less physically active. Interestingly, there is controversy over whether eating fat boosts cancer risk or not. However, many studies suggest that eating tasty red meat increases one's chances of cancer. It turns out that as people in developing countries get richer the more meat they want to eat

With regard to life expectancy, it is true that one way to reduce the burden of cancer in the developing world would be to do it the old-fashioned way -- die young. That's probably not what people would prefer to do. 

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  • ||

    With regard to life expectancy, it is true that one way to reduce the burden of cancer in the developing world would be to do it the old-fashioned way -- die young.

    So, by bombing Lybia, we're helping lower their cancer rate?

  • sevo||

    "So, by bombing Lybia, we're helping lower their cancer rate?"

    And saving face! Don't forget that!

  • ||

    We are also improving our image in the Muslim world or some bullshit.

  • sarcasmic||

    The best way to lower cancer rates is to follow the advice of the global warming alarmists.

    If we end our use of petroleum and fossil fuels we will not have the ability to maintain our energy needs.
    Industry and technology as we know it will end.
    Large scale agriculture as we know it will end.

    The result of this will be the abandonment of the Western lifestyle by all as the entire world adopts a pre-Industrial Age lifestyle.

    As the worldwide average lifespan returns to the forties and fifties where it has been throughout most of history, cancer will become little more than a bad memory.

  • Old Mexican||

    Scientific American Scare Headline: Cancer "Is Spreading Throughout the Globe"


    Is this better or worse than Human-driven Global Warming? I can't keep up with all these hysterical scares any more....

  • sarcasmic||

    Both scares have the same solution: poverty.

    People living in poverty do not produce greenhouse gasses, nor do they live long enough to get cancer.

    They don't envy rich people because there are no rich people.

    Just imagine - I world without global warming, without cancer, and without inequality.

    Grinding poverty is the solution to everything.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: sarcasmic,

    Just imagine - I world without global warming, without cancer, and without inequality.


    And without people. Don't forget the ultimate goal of the envirocrazies: a world without people.

  • Pro Liberace||

    Except for fuzzy bunnies, who are totally people, you guys.

  • sarcasmic||

    That's not true. People are OK as long as they live as one with the environment.
    As long as society never progresses past Stone Age hunter gatherer it is acceptable.
    Native Americans were the model of a society acceptable to enviroMENTALists.

  • ||

    A model society that killed animals wholesale and used only a few?
    "The Vore buffalo jump site in Wyoming...was used five times between 1550 and 1690, and holds the remains of 20,000 buffalo. That means 4,000 or more buffalo were killed each time the jump was used. Other buffalo jumps in the West display the remains of as many as 300,000 buffalo." -- Alston Chase, Playing God in Yellowstone

    A model society that purposely set forest fires?
    "...the Savages are accustomed to set fire of the Country in all places where they come, and to burne it twize a year, vixe at the Spring, and the fall of the leafe. The reason that mooves them to doe so, is because it would other wise be a coppice wood, and the
    people would not be able in any wise to passe through the Country out of a beaten path." -- Puritan Thomas Morton 1637

    Yep, they were models for the environmentalists.

  • yonemoto||

    sounds like good stewardship of the land! Oh, wait. You said environmentalist, not conservationist.

  • ||

    Native Americans were the model of a society acceptable to enviroMENTALists.

    Idealized Native Americans....environmentalists seem to forget all the extinctions that occurred just after Asian migration into the the Americas.

  • ||

    And without people. Don't forget the ultimate goal of the envirocrazies: a world without people.

    That's what the grinding is for.

  • Old Mexican||

    writes journalist Martin Enserink this week in Science [that] [i]n some of the world's poorest countries about nine in 10 children diagnosed with leukemia will die from the disease, whereas in Western Europe survival is about 85 percent[.]


    All that those poor countries need is a little tender love and ObamaCare.

  • Cliché Bandit||

    Combine "Guns, Germs, and Steel" with "Good Calories Bad Calories" and I think you have some really strong epidemialogical evidence as to why cancer even exists on a large scale.

  • ||

    I think I follow:
    GG&S shows Eurasian (especially Western European) cultural spread. GCBC shows the Western (high carb) diet may be a major source of cancer in large part due to the accumulation of AGPs.
    Yeah, looks to me it should be looked into.

  • Highway||

    I think it's more likely that the two reasons cancer is 'spreading' around the world are 1) increased life expectancy and 2) greater testing for cancer. If 'Western Lifestyles' increase cancer incidence, then why are fewer people who live the 'western lifestyle' in the US getting cancer, as noted throughout the rest of the article. Especially since they're getting the same cancer prevention knowledge that the western countries get.

  • Brett L||

    Yep. Fewer people dying of typhoid/dysentary/yellow fever/famine/war will increase the incidence of cancer and heart disease.

  • yonemoto||

    "mortality rates are in decline... That is indeed good news."

    Uhm, not if your quality of life sucks. It seems like chemotherapies are better, but sometimes life after cancer can be awful. And expensive.

    "So why would cancer be "spreading" worldwide?"

    How about second-generation mutations in the population as a result of ~500 atmospheric nuclear tests? I mean, seriously. Lifestyle changes? Why are we ignoring the elephant in the room, or is it just convenient to forget about the sins of the nation from the last century?

  • Bradley||

    Not sure if trolling...

  • ||

    Uhm, not if your quality of life sucks.

    How can life suck more when life is killing you, your friends and your family less?

    Isn't it a given that if you and your poeple are dying less that your quality of life is better then it was?

    I hope you are trolling....because knowing that there are people as stupid as you walking the earth ruins my day.

  • yonemoto||

    not trolling at all. It depends on the cancer, of course. I helped take care of a friend with cancer, and the treatment was so bad that it might have been better if she never went through it at all. It was clear that the doctors didn't know what the hell they were doing. At one point they started her on a drug that I was certain wouldn't do any good (because it was the same drug as what they had given her the first time she got the cancer and I was fairly certain that the recurrence would basically consist of resistant cells).

    So, what. They bought her 8 months. There were some good days in there, but there were far, far more miserable ones. But she brought the life expectancy numbers up!

  • yonemoto||

    the irony is that at the same time I had been working on a project where we were making an anti-cancer drug candidate. You have no idea how many times I wanted to steal some, put it in a vial, and inject it into her (very early stage, I was the sole person in the posession chain of the compound). Just before I moved cities to take care of her in the last of her days, we sent it off for screening. A week before she passed away, the drug candidate tested positive for three lines of triple negative breast cancer, which is what she had.

  • Old Mexican||

    One prevalent hypothesis about how western lifestyles promote cancer incidence is that it leads people to become fatter and less physically active.


    Being lazy causes cancer? I shall take away my wife's washing machine and make her wash our clothes in the river with a rock! I don't want her to die of cancer!

    Interestingly, there is controversy over whether eating fat boosts cancer risk or not.


    The controversy may stem from the real possibility that the idea is pure, unadulterated bullshit.

    However, many studies suggest that eating tasty red meat increases one's chances of cancer.


    Yes, we should all be eating mutton!

    It turns out that as people in developing countries get richer the more meat they want to eat.


    I need steak! And you, sir, are steak! You're all steak!

    That's right, you might as well face it: You are all steak!

  • Zeb||

    I think that mutton (and lamb and pork) count as red meat. Don't fall for the "other white meat" nonsense.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Zeb,

    I think that mutton (and lamb and pork) count as red meat.


    What about tuna?

  • Zeb||

    There is an actual nutritional definition of red meat. Basically all mammal meat is red meat, nutritionally speaking. I don't know about Tuna.

  • JD||

    Depends if it's "dolphin-safe" or not.

  • kilroy||

    Indeed. They dropped the "other white meat" slogan earlier this very month.

    http://www.google.com/hostedne.....ggUSPNIJ1Q

  • Old Mexican||

    With regard to life expectancy, it is true that one way to reduce the burden of cancer in the developing world would be to do it the old-fashioned way -- die young. That's probably not what people would prefer to do.


    What do we care what people prefer to do? They're all irrational dolts - that's why there's government, to make those decisions for them. Ask Tony: He knows.

  • ||

    Knowing what boring old Tony would say is too easy. Try something more challenging, like....what would R C Dean say.

  • Tony||

    I have a tramp stamp that says "ENTER" with an arrow pointing down!

  • ||

    Wait...

    who?!?!

    Are you saying that is what RC Dean would say?

    Are you a fake Tony saying that this is what Tony would say?

    Are you the real Tony telling us you have a tramp stamp?

    WHAT?!?

  • ||

    This could also simply be an effect of more access to health care in developing countries combined with better record keeping. Before, those people died mostly without seeing a medical doctor; record-keeping mostly limited to birth- and death-counts. Now the seriously ill will at least see a doctor who in many cases can only diagnose the cancer and perhaps provide palliative care, and create a medical record.

  • Pro Liberace||

    Vis a vi red meat:
    Would the problem be the meat itself, or the tasty, tasty seared carbon crust?

  • ||

    I used to anticipate getting my SciAm in the mail every month, but recently let my subscription lapse. Why? Because instead of actually having interesting, engaging, and scientifically minded articles it is now filled with populist scare mongering garbage(like the luddite that said we all have to live like people did in the 19th century if we are going to survive) as above. It has become the USA Today of science mags.

    For a magazine called Scientific American!

    It's friday: drink!

  • Old Mexican||

    [Scientific American] is now filled with populist scare mongering garbage[...]


    "Now"? What do you mean, "now"?

  • ||

    Now = 1990ish to present.

  • Trespassers W||

    That's why I dropped my subscription back in the 90s.

  • ||

    I still subscribe. I enjoy the cosmology, astronomy, and evolution articles.

    Even some of the AGW articles are readable when they don't get into scaremongering.

    Though I admit I almost cancelled during John Rennie's tenure as editor.

  • Sam Grove||

    Vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common deficiency diseases in western countries. D deficiency is associated with higher cancer mortality rates among other diseases.

    When did sunscreen use become popular?

  • ||

    Combined with people staying indoors more. Tanning lamps people, fire em up.

  • ||

    I don't go outside all that much, but when I do, I maximize Vitamin D production by leaving the clothes indoors, where they belong.

  • ||

    Why do people die of cancer? Most people can't tell you. If you have Leukemia, you are at risk for infections. One hundred years ago there would have been little way of knowing why someone died of pneumonia. Now, with regular medical visits, blood tests, and access to more advance testing as needed, we can definitively diagnose diseases. Definitely not the case in the past, or in more remote areas today.

    I have a relative from the 1800's whose cause of death is listed as "fever." Who actually knows what that means? A big part of why cancer may seem more common in the developing world is that there are better ways to look for it in people who are sick.

  • yonemoto||

    That says nothing. For many years the increase in autism was reflexively defended as merely a result of an increase in awareness. But models of that don't quite account for the actual increase. I think (and some people seem to agree) that it clusters because autistic traits are more prevalent in people of high intelligence and such people tend to self-segregate more than they ever used to in the past, and what used to be genes diffused in the population are now coming together more often.

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