Friday, December 9, 2022

Cancer and Climate Change: How the World’s 2 Biggest Health Threats Are Connected

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Fighting climate change helps fight cancer, too.

Cancer is a leading cause of death globally, with more than 15 percent of all deaths linked to the disease, taking more than ten million lives each year. And yet, most cancers are preventable with proper lifestyle changes and treatable if caught early enough.

“Any factors that undermine equitable access to care must be addressed to help decrease the disparities in cancer incidence and outcomes,” Fuck Cancer CEO, Heather Kun MSPhD, told Ethos via email. The Fuck Cancer organization, founded by Yael Cohen Braun and Julie Greenbaum, works to help bring screenings, prevention, and other resources to populations who otherwise would not have access. 

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Courtesy Yaroslav Shuraev | Pexels

While some types of cancer are decreasing, others, like digestive cancers, continue to rise, as does the prevalence in people under age 50. And covid also took a toll on early detection and care.

“A majority of our community is either immunocompromised or caring for a loved one who is, so we really had to stay on top of how to help people navigate the experiences that came from that and make sure they were getting the right information and access to resources that could help them during that specific time,” Greenbaum says. “Also, routine cancer screenings decreased greatly and we are already seeing an increase in late-stage cancer diagnosis because of it which means our early detection and prevention work is more important now than ever.”

Like cancer is both preventable and treatable, so too is our climate crisis. And, it turns out, the two are linked in important ways.

“The environmental consequences of climate change means people’s risk for cancer will definitely increase,” Kun says. “Particularly, with more carbon emissions, decreased ozone layer protection, increased sun exposure, and any disruptions in cancer care and screenings due to climate disasters means it will impact people’s risk of cancer and at what stage they find it.”

Meat and the climate

Kun says ignoring the planet’s health is akin to ignoring our own health, which creates a vicious cycle of problems and could exacerbate both of these threats.

The global healthcare sector is responsible for as much as 4.6 percent of total emissions, so the healthier we are, the healthier we keep the planet and future generations.

Chief among the contributors to global warming is greenhouse gases produced by animal agriculture. Agriculture is responsible for about 15 percent of emissions and livestock production makes up about 60 percent of those emissions. By comparison, the aviation industry represents just 2.5 percent of all emissions.

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Courtesy Michelangelo Op | Motion Array

In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations released a report urging the world to reduce their meat consumption to fight climate change.

“We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, said of the report. “But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”

Meat production’s problems don’t just start and stop with its contribution to emissions. It’s a tremendous strain on resources including fresh water, cereal grains, antibiotics, and land. In the Amazon, it’s now the leading cause of deforestation, pushing the rainforest into carbon emitter status instead of its long-held title of carbon sink.

Meat and cancer

The World Health Organization has classified processed meats, including ham, bacon, salami, sausages, and hot dogs, as Group 1 carcinogens. This classification means they’re known to cause cancer, namely colorectal cancer, with a 50-gram daily serving of processed meat linked to an 18 percent increase. Whole-cut red meat including beef, lamb, and pork, has been classified as a Group 2A carcinogen, meaning they’re likely to cause cancer.

Recent findings published in the journal BMC Medicine, connect a diet low in or void of meat to lower overall cancer risks, according to the University of Oxford researchers behind the study.

The researchers looked at data from more than 470,000 British adults between the ages of 40 and 70.

Study participants reported on their diet, and, in particular, how frequently they consumed fish and meat. The researchers compared that with new cancers over an 11-year period. The researchers controlled for issues like diabetes, sociodemographic, socioeconomic, and lifestyle factors.

Dairy Cattle
Courtesy David Dolenc | Unsplash

According to the findings, the cancer risk was two percent lower in participants who ate meat five times or less per week compared with people who ate meat more often; ten percent lower for those who ate fish only, and 14 percent lower in vegan or vegetarians who consumed no meat at all.

“Following a vegetarian, pescatarian or low-meat diet may be associated with a lower risk of being diagnosed with cancer,” study co-author Cody Watling, a doctoral student in cancer epidemiology at the University of Oxford in England, told UPI.

“There are different compounds that are found in red and processed meat, either through cooking or added during the processing, that may damage cells and therefore could increase the risk of colorectal cancer,” Watling said.

“However, for other cancer types, outside of colorectal, there is no convincing evidence that suggests consuming meat is associated with the risk of other cancers,” he said.

The findings aren’t the first to link a low-meat or no-meat diet to increased health benefits. U.S. News & World Report repeatedly puts the Mediterranean Diet at the top of its healthiest diet lists. The World Health Organization has recommended lower meat diets for years. And the American Heart Association recently updated its dietary guidelines for the first time in 15 years, suggesting a more sustainable plant-forward diet also has the most health benefits. 

Prevention and detection

California-based vegan meat brand Beyond Meat and the American Cancer Society just signed a multi-year agreement in order to build data around the health benefits of a plant-based diet and help steer consumers toward cancer prevention through diet changes.

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Courtesy Jason Briscoe | Unsplash

“American Cancer Society guidelines have long recommended a diet rich in plant foods with limited intake of processed and red meat,” William L. Dahut, M.D., Chief Scientific Officer at the American Cancer Society, said in a statement. “While short-term research studies have shown that switching to plant-based meat improves risk factors for heart disease, including cholesterol levels and body weight, research in this area is still in its early stages, particularly in relation to cancer.”

One of Beyond Meat’s core goals is to positively impact human health, say CEO Ethan Brown, “and we’re committed to taking action by supporting trusted, scientific and evidence-based research on the benefits of shifting the protein at the center of the plate from animal-based meat to plant-based meat.”  

Kun says it’s always a good time to get screened.

“We’ve expanded our community clinic programs both geographically and in numbers and already seen an increase in colorectal, breast, and lung cancer screenings,” she says. Fuck Cancer’s HPV vaccination program recently expanded beyond Harlem and Central and South Los Angeles into Oklahoma “which almost doubled the amount of cancer-preventing vaccines that were given and helped increase health equity in these communities,” she says.”

Fuck Cancer’s new website offers support services for patients, caregivers, and supporters. “We wanted to take the guesswork out of cancer, whether you’ve just been diagnosed, are living with cancer, or navigating life after cancer.” Visit the Let’s Fuck Cancer website for more information.

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