Observing the Word of Wisdom Can Aid Cancer Prevention

By Dr. Charles R. Smart

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    While the Word of Wisdom was given in 1833, suggesting that tobacco, alcohol, hot drinks and excessive eating of meat were not good for man, it has only been in the last 30 years that overwhelming scientific evidence has been developed to support this wisdom. This is particularly true of the cancer problem.

    In the past five years, numerous scientific articles have been written on the low incidence of cancer among Mormons and of the low incidence of cancer in Utah, where 70 percent of the population are on the rolls of the LDS Church.

    Interestingly enough, much of this research has been done by investigators outside of Utah who are not members of the Church. Many of these investigators have discovered that the precepts contained in the Word of Wisdom are the ways to avoid the major risks of cancer. Presently 20 percent of all deaths in the United States are due to cancer, amounting to an estimated 440,000 deaths per year.

    Utah has the lowest age and sex adjusted cancer death rate of any state in the United States.

    The cancers which are most reduced are those associated with the use of tobacco, where the death rate is reduced by 48 percent, compared with that of the entire United States.

    Many studies have shown that rates of nearly all cancers are increased in smokers, as compared with non-smokers, with the highest risk areas of the body being those which are in direct contact with the smoke, i.e., the mouth, tongue, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, and lung.

    It is of interest, however, that even distant parts of the body in no direct contact with smoke are also strongly affected. For instance, in smokers as compared with non-smokers, cancer of the bladder is five times higher, cancer of the kidney two times higher and cancer of the pancreas 1.7 times higher.

    Cancers strongly related to smoking, such as cancer of the lung, mouth, tongue and larynx, are over 90 percent preventable if smoking were eliminated.

    (While in the past some have argued that non-smokers breathing smoke secondarily were at no risk, present evidence indicates an increased risk to all individuals inhaling smoke. It is only a matter of the degree of risk—the larger the amount of smoke breathed, the greater the risk of developing cancer.)

    Many of the cancers associated with smoking are also related to alcohol consumption, particularly those in the mouth, tongue, pharynx, esophagus, and stomach. Because these relationships have been so strong, it has been difficult to separate the two effects in statistical studies of cancer incidence.

    In the past three or four years, suggestive evidence is developing regarding the relationship of cancer of the bladder and pancreas with the use of coffee. This relationship is being verified by a number of different studies in the United States, but is not yet firmly established.

    It has also been suggested that fibrocystic disease of the female breast has been associated with the use of coffee. Some studies have suggested an increased risk of cancer of the breast in women who have cystic disease of the breast; however, this is probably only true of a small subgroup of women with a special type of cystic disease. These relationships are being further studied in an attempt to confirm these preliminary studies.

    In addition to proscribing the use of tobacco and alcohol, the Word of Wisdom also suggests using meat sparingly. Certain cancers have been implicated in the excessive use of the meat, namely cancer of the colon and rectum, which are two of the major cancers in the United States. It has also been suggested by research that intake of a high fiber diet will reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

    Cancer of the breast is increased in women who are overweight and appears to have a slight relationship with cholesterol, which is influenced by the intake of animal fat.

    The risk of cancer of the breast is reduced by childbearing before the age of 25 and possibly by breast feeding, although the latter is currently being challenged in favor of the former.

    While much has been made by the news media and others of the importance of occupational and external environmental carcinogens, by far the most important considerations in preventing cancer are lifestyle and a healthy personal internal environment.

    The fight against cancer is not at a standoff. Progress is being made, causes are being identified, and survival is improving.

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    • Dr. Smart, director of the cancer department for the American College of Surgeons, is chief of surgery at LDS Hospital, Salt Lake City, and is associated with both the National Cancer Society and the American Joint Commission on Cancer.