Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that environmental factors could be playing a role in the increasing number of prostate cancer cases in the U.S. and elsewhere?
Prostate cancer is a growing problem for men in the U.S. as well as in other developed nations around the world. Some 40,000 American men lose their battle with prostate cancer every year – the only cancer more deadly for U.S. men is skin cancer. Age is the primary risk factor for developing prostate cancer. One out of every six American men over the age of 40 will develop prostate cancer, while four out of five over 80 years old will get it. Of course, genes also play a big role. The American Cancer Society reports that a mans prostate cancer risk doubles if his father or brother has suffered from the disease. Researchers believe a genetic predisposition accounts for as many as 10 percent of all cases of the disease in the U.S.
Beyond age and genetics, though, environmental factors do likely play a role. WebMD reports, for instance, that prostate cancer occurs about 60 percent more often in African American men than in white American men, and when diagnosed is more likely to be advanced. But interestingly enough, prostate cancer rates for African men living in their native countries are much lower. When native Africans immigrate to the U.S., however, prostate cancer rates increase sharply.
According to WebMD, the reason for these differences are not fully understood, but an environmental connection – possibly related to high-fat diets, less exposure to the sun, exposure to heavy metals, infectious agents, or smoking – might be to blame. Some new research suggests that a switch to a diet high in fat could be a significant contributing factor in these cases. “The disease is much more common in countries where meat and dairy products are dietary staples,” adds WebMD.
The take-away for men concerned about prostate health is to eat healthier. Several studies suggest that a diet high in lycopene (an antioxidant found in high levels in tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon and some other fruits and veggies) could lower an individual’s risk of developing prostate cancer significantly.
Researchers have also found links between other environmental factors and prostate cancer. Dr. Matthew Schmitz, a prostate cancer specialist at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and the prostate cancer guide at About.com, reports that exposure to high levels of cadmium (a naturally occurring element used in industrial processes and present in cigarette smoke) as well as dioxins (chemicals widely used in herbicides and other applications) have been linked to increased prostate cancer risk. Other researchers have noticed that men who take calcium supplements and multi-vitamins regularly may be at higher risk. Schmitz says that more research is needed to learn how risky such exposures really are.
For those who do get prostate cancer, some promising new treatments will be undergoing clinical trials soon. Dr. Marianne Sadar of the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, Canada, has used an experimental drug adapted from sea sponges to shrink cancer tumors in mice. It will be a year before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration permits trials of the new drug on humans, but prostate patients and their doctors are holding out hope that this and other new treatments can obviate the need for many surgeries.
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