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Cancer prevention has its limits: oncologist

According to Dr. Michael Pollak, the best way to reduce the risk of getting cancer is to cut down on alcohol and tobacco consumption.

Cancer researcher Dr. Michael Pollak likens getting the disease to a car accident: no matter how much you do to minimize the risk, chance is still a factor.

Pollak – who’s the director of the Stroll Cancer Prevention Centre, which is based at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) in Montreal – thinks that claiming half of cancers are preventable is probably an over-estimate.

“But even the most pessimistic put it at at least 30 per cent and that’s a huge amount,” he said at a public forum on cancer prevention held in Montreal on March 28.

“We can’t rely on treatment to solve the problem, it doesn’t work well enough and it’s too expensive,” he said. “We have to prevent every single (case).”

Like driving a vehicle, people must take precautions, but be realistic, said Pollak, who holds the Alexander Goldfarb research chair in medical oncology at McGill University and has published over 450 papers.

Based on scientific evidence, the best precautions are not smoking and not using alcohol to excess, he said.


While the former has been drummed into the public’s mind for at least 50 years, Pollak said that people still think that the worst drinking can do is damage the liver. But there is a strong correlation between consumption, especially binging, and the development of various cancers. “Don’t drink a bottle of vodka on the weekend,” he advised.

Pollak’s practical approach was somewhat at adds with the presentations put on by his fellow panelists at the event, which was co-organized by Attitude, a Montreal-based company that makes skin care and cleaning products from natural ingredients, the Washington-based Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization that advocates for the reduction of chemicals it believes are toxic or carcinogenic, McGill University and the JGH.

The title of the free, sold-out forum was, “Is it True that Half of All Cancers Could be Prevented?”

EWG president and co-founder Ken Cook argued that our bodies are swimming with hundreds of chemicals, many of which can have harmful effects, including cancer, even at extremely low concentrations.

They come from industrial pollution, pesticides, car exhaust and consumer products, including cosmetics and other common household items, Cook said. The U.S. regulatory system, he charged, is not adequately protecting the population and government policy must change, in order to address these issues.

EWG publishes its extensive research with the aim of raising public awareness.

The important point is to recognize that, despite all you hear, not all cancer is preventable.
– Dr. Michael Pollak

Attitude vice-president and research and development director Hans Drouin, who holds a PhD in biotechnology engineering, concurred.

But Pollak maintained that any possible risk in shampoo ingredients, for example, is dwarfed by the proven dangers of smoking and drinking.

According to Pollak, not enough studies have been conducted on everyday products to determine how dangerous they are – a point Cook agreed with.

Scientific proof, Pollak said, would require surveying 20,000 people who were exposed to a substance for over 20 years and comparing them with 20,000 people who were not. “It’s very hard to get that data,” he said.

“The important point is to recognize that, despite all you hear, not all cancer is preventable. I know people who have had the perfect lifestyle who got cancer, and those who had terrible lifestyles who did not.”

Prudent drivers reduce risk by such proven means as not drinking, wearing a seatbelt and not speeding, he said. The same attitude should be taken with cancer, with the understanding that risk cannot be totally eliminated.

“You should not feel that if you get cancer, it’s your fault,” said Pollak. “You can just affect the probability of getting it.”

You should not feel that if you get cancer, it’s your fault.
– Dr. Michael Pollak

Pollak is in favour of warning labels on unhealthy foods and is critical of the U.S. for reportedly seeking to restrict such labeling in Canada, as part of the current North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations. In February, the Canadian government announced plans to have labels on processed foods that clearly flag high sugar, fat or sodium content.

Pollak calls the U.S. demand “absurd.… We have to take a stand against this.… If the U.S. does not back off, we have to launch a big protest. It has to come from the bottom up.”

The U.S., he suggested, is bowing to “the bad food lobby” and the public “cannot sit passively and let government fix it.”

Consumer demand is what industry will respond to, Pollak said, and he would like to see companies “compete to produce the healthiest food, not conspire among themselves to hide what is not healthy.”