In one region of northwestern France, the rate of cancer of the esophagus is 18 times higher than in the rest of Europe.
In the Netherlands, England, Wales and Denmark, women are more likely to die from breast cancer types than any other country.
In Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, where 300 out of every 100,000 children below the age of 15 are hit by a jaw malignancy called Burkitt’s lymphoma,a 200-square-mile area is practically free of the disease.
What can we learn from these stark differences in cancer rates? Scientists at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyons, France, are convinced that by focusing on the “hot spots” and “cold spots” of cancer in the world today we can learn to prevent most forms of this major killer. Says Dr. John Higginson, the articulate Irish-born American director of the IARC: “There is no reason today why individuals should not be able to have a ‘personal anti-cancer plan’ to minimize their risks of developing this most feared of all afflictions .”
As an example, he cites stage 3 lung cancer . “We still don’t know the details of the biochemical process by which tobacco causes cancer in the lungs ,” he says. But epidemiological studies show us beyond doubt that cigarette smoking is the environmental ‘trigger’ of most lung cancers. Thus, you increase life expectancy lung cancer enormously by giving up cigarettes.
Scientists have suspected for a long time that environmental factors such as pollutants in the air and chemicals in our food and water may be involved in some cancers.
But it was not until 1965 that a global effort was launched to test this theory. Under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO), the IARC was set up with an annual budget of $750,000 (now $6 million) and given a mandate “to determine the role of the environment in all forms of human cancer.”
Despite the impressive laboratory and other research facilities at IARC’s modern 14-story headquarters on the outskirts of Lyons, only a fraction of the 32 scientists, 42 technicians and staff of 60 representing more than 20 countries can be found there at any given time. The rest are out in the field conducting epidemiological studies on five continents.