Finding a simple cure for cancer

Cancer's small picture: New Brunswick scientist Inka Milewski looks at old data in new ways to challenge the idea that getting sick is inevitable.

Inka Milewski raises an issue about method: "The scale at which an observation is made is really important."

When government scientists measured the North Atlantic cod population in the early '90s, they missed small areas where cod had disappeared. They were looking at too large portions of the ocean---the small collapses were averaged out by healthier spots, and warning signs were missed. Oops.

Milewski is a marine biologist who still cries when she talks about the cod collapse, but for three years she has focused on human populations---cancer rates in New Brunswick communities. "Anecdotally people would tell me, 'We have really high cancer rates here,' but the data didn't exist."

At least, it didn't exist at the community scale, where it could be compared with community features known to cause cancer. Provincial governments do a great job recording cancer rates by health regions. In all of Nova Scotia there are nine of these health regions---the Halifax region alone has 400,000 people.

In New Brunswick, Milewski broke those large chunks of data down by Statistics Canada's census subdivisions. It allowed her to pinpoint cancer rates in 14 communities, and compare industrial areas to fishing, forestry and farming areas.

"It appears that communities with higher levels of industry have increased rates of cancers," Milewski says. "Dalhousie, Minto, St. John and Harvey have the highest rates of the most common cancers. Women in Dalhousie have three times the rate of ovarian cancer than the provincial average." Less industrial areas such as Caraquet and Drummond-Denmark have significantly lower cancer rates than average.

Her analysis also considers demographic data like age, income and lifestyle, but she finds insignificant differences in these traits among the communities. What does affect cancer rates is the environment---it seems polluted areas are making people very sick.

Duh, you say? What's surprising is this study is the first to look at cancer rates and community features across a province. Many studies have linked industrial emissions and disease, and a few looked at single communities. A 2005 study of the smelting town of Belledune, NB, showed men there had the province's highest rates of kidney cancer.

Judith Guernsey of Dalhousie Medical School studied cancer rates in Sydney versus Cape Breton County versus Nova Scotia as a whole. She found significantly higher rates of certain cancers in Sydney's industrial environment.

Studies going back 60 years show that direct exposure to certain chemicals causes certain cancers, and the closer you live to the chemical the higher your chances of getting that cancer. But never before has anyone compared community cancer rates across a province to the pollutants being emitted in each community, showing how exposure manifests itself in actual cancer rates in actual human beings.

For just $50,000, using already existing data in a new way, Milewski has revealed links between environment and health. Yet since the study's release in December, the health community's response has been resounding silence.

Why haven't other provinces jumped to replicate her study? Milewski can only speculate. "Perhaps studies like this place stigmas on communities with high cancer rates, which makes it hard to attract new people."

To counteract such stigmas, governments would have to respond to what the data tells them, and figure out why cancer rates rise in industrial areas. "It's possible they don't think they have the resources," Milewski says. "Very little is put into cancer prevention. It's a matter of re-thinking policy."

Current policy is twofold: attract industry at all costs, and fight the cancer once we get it. No wonder one in two males and one in three females will suffer cancer, at great expense to government health care budgets.

We've come to accept cancer as a natural consequence of the way we live, but Milewski feels differently. "Cancer is not inevitable," she says. For the most part, it is the direct result of chemical---including booze and smokes---exposure, with radiation and viruses playing a lesser role. Eliminate the chemical exposure, and you've got cancer mostly licked. But try telling that to a CEO sticking a factory in your town. "The pushback from industry against this information is always so strong," Milewski says.

Industry is still pumping out about a thousand new chemicals a year, yet we know so little about them. Of the between 100,000 and 500,000 human-made chemicals already in the environment, only 170 have been thoroughly tested for health impacts. So much for an ounce of prevention.

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