Cancer is a verb, not a noun. This is one of the many insights that has stayed with me after reading “The End of Illness” by American oncologist, Dr. David Agus. That and don’t waste time popping multivitamins. They don’t get absorbed by the body nearly as well as the vitamins in food you consume or from sunlight. Also some may cause you more harm than good. “If Vitamin D, (for example) can nourish a healthy cell to help its development, then isn’t it reasonable to think it could do this for a cancerous cell?” And as for Vitamin C, “a little Pac-Man molecule that chews up dangerous chemicals known as oxidants … popping tablets is a waste, because most of it will be passed in the urine.”
And “although vitamin C might help prevent cancer, it can become an archenemy once you’re cancering because tumors enjoy vitamin C. They devour vitamin C like candy, so you could be feeding your cancer rather than fighting it if you consume excess vitamin C.”
That being said, people who take vitamin supplements tend to be healthier than the population at large. Agus argues that has nothing to do with the vitamins, but rather vitamin takers tend to be better educated, more affluent and leaner. They drink and smoke less and exercise more. “The typical American diet, despite our penchant for too much fat, sugar and processed foods, provides 120 per cent of the recommended dietary allowances …”
But until you, yourself, know how your body functions, you cannot know what effect certain supplements will have on your system. Instead, Agus recommends getting to know your personal metrics which he defines as “a set of habits or customs you subscribe to that affect your health.” These include things like your healthy body weight and what time you have to hit the hay in order to feel good the next morning.
A health questionnaire on pages 15-18 is simple and once complete provides the basis for your annual medical check-up. Agus recommends requesting blood work to check a whole whack of bodily functions, like fasting lipid profile, levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, Comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP), complete blood cell count (CBC), thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and hemoglobin A1C. I won’t go into the importance of each test here but pages 58-60 go through all that. He also recommends you get a copy of the results so you can work alongside your doctors in making sure your body is functioning at the optimum level.
The amount of data created by each of your doctors is staggering, but communication between them is still not at an optimum. That could improve if you had copies of your files. This personalized medical approach should help you avoid the “prescription shuffle, trying one drug, then another, then a third or fourth in hopes of finally hitting on a treatment that works.” Agus is an advocate of the one-year rule — every year, go through your list of drugs with your doctor and see if any can be eliminated.
Agus also says inflammation is your worst enemy. “Inflammation is a telltale sign that something isn’t right in the body, that the body is encountering harmful stimuli, which can be any number of things from pathogens to damaged cells and irritants. … Virtually all chronic conditions have been linked to chronic inflammation, which, simply put, creates an imbalance in your system that stimulates negative effects on your health.” (p. 46-7) If you suffer inflammation in the joints you should report this to your doctor and work together to make your body the most efficient working machine possible. Agus does tout the benefits of taking a baby aspirin a day as an anti-inflammatory to prevent blood clots and “stave off a heart attack or stroke.”
Agus also recommends that those people over the age of 40, unless informed otherwise, take statins which improve blood and cholesterol levels. He also stresses the medical importance of keeping on schedule to avoid stressing the body. Eating and sleeping at the same times each day. He encourages you to not be alarmist when you read an eye-popping headline about the results of some “new” study. He says you have to look at where the study was done and who participated to determine if the results might apply to you and your personal ancestry and metrics.
A final thing Agus recommends is genetic testing to identify your individual human genome, which he describes as “found in virtually all of the trillions of cells in the human body and provides instructions for how human beings operate.” The personal genomics industry has allowed people to obtain their individual genetic map by supplying a saliva sample and a wad of cash. The book does not get into how much this testing costs or where it is available in North America, perhaps because Agus himself owns a company, Navigenics, that carries out that very testing. But, he says, “Genetic testing shows genetic predisposition to common conditions, so that prevention measures may be taken or early diagnosis may be made.” For example, a proteomic test for cancer looks for certain blood markers “to identify changes in the state of the body that we can then address, or to be able to predict the response to a drug or surgery in a patient. This would take the place of invasive techniques used today such as biopsies. Proteomics could clue doctors into better ways of treating and whether invasive steps need to be taken at all.”
Proteomic-based tests are not new. They have been used for decades to determine pregnancy. A woman’s urine would be injected into the ear vein of a female rabbit. If the rabbit’s ovaries changed in response to the hormone, then pregnancy was certain. It wasn’t until 1977 that the first over-the-counter pregnancy tests were available.
So proteomics could save you from enduring potentially harmful and uncomfortable procedures. For example, rather than endure a colonoscopy year after year, Agus suggests an annual blood test could do the same thing. You would only have a colonoscopy if an actual polyp had to be removed. “This is just one example of (what) proteomics can afford us. Health care costs would inevitably come down, and the risk of secondary harm from invasive techniques would also diminish.”
“The End of Illness” is not a book you can digest in one sitting. It is, however, a great book to keep on the side table and pick up when you have a minute, taking note of anything pertinent to you. It contains some bits of knowledge which have been engrained in our conscious like regular moderate exercise is healthy. It also contains some surprises like sometimes doing nothing is the best thing. Let your body heal itself. Or frozen fruit and vegetables are sometimes healthier than fresh because many fresh produce comes from far-away lands and is picked before it is ripe to help endure the long shipment. Frozen produce, on the other hand, tends to be processed at its peak.
The main thing to take away from this book is knowledge is power, and if you’d like to be as healthy as possible, the onus is on you to know your body and work with your doctors to care for it.
“The End of Illness” has a Newfoundland connection. Kristin Loberg, Agus’s ghost writer who’s listed on the inside page, is married to Lawrence Karasek of St. John’s. They live in California with their son, Colin.
Susan Flanagan is an avid reader living in St. John’s