Monday, 30 November 2015

The Dirty Face of Dairy

The dairy industry has been in the spotlight in New Zealand over the past few days following the broadcast on TV One’s Sunday program that showed shocking footage of calf abuse at the hands of farmers, truckers, and abattoir workers. Obtained under cover by animal rights group SAFE, the footage shows newly born calves being separated from their mothers; held in roadside holding pens for hours without shelter, food, or water; being manhandled (thrown in many cases) onto trucks; and then thrown, beaten, and bashed in abattoir stock pens. (WARNING: these clips are disturbing.)

Photo from SAFE website

The revelations have understandably caused a public outcry, and outcry from many farmers too, who claim to run caring and humane dairy farms. While New Zealand’s biggest dairy company Fonterra insists animal welfare is a priority for them, and the Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy says they have commenced an investigation (albeit, two months after they were given the footage and not, apparently, before it became public), the issue brings some home truths to the New Zealand public.

While this kind of animal abuse is profoundly disturbing and probably not the norm on dairy farms in general (although it may be at many abattoirs), there are numerous issues raised by the dairy industry that are less obvious. The basic truth is:  to create the milk in our fridges, our ice cream, yogurt, and toasted cheese sandwiches, cows must be impregnated yearly and their calves must be removed from them (almost always within the first 24 hours) so that we can harvest the milk that nature intended for the calves. Many of those calves are superfluous to requirements, being either male or of a breed not suitable for meat production such as Jersey, and thus they are killed when just a few days old. We call them bobby calves (regardless of sex). Most go into the pet food industry.

Dairying is hard on cows too. Heifers (female cows that haven’t yet had a calf) can be bred 9-12 months after they are born. Dairy cows will have several annual calves, and when their milk production drops after a few years because they are worn out, they are sold off to the meat works. Milking normally occurs once or twice a day, not more often as it would be with a calf at heel. Mastitis is common. Modern pasturage rarely allows cows to pick and choose what plants they want to eat. And as for the issue of calf removal, it is well known that cows and calves both find this process stressful even if done “kindly”, and some cows mourn the loss of their baby for days after the separation—a cow’s maternal instinct is huge. (And they’re smarter than we often give them credit for—see this story of a protective motherly cow who hid her calf--spoiler: happy ending.)

Most of the public is so far removed from the farm gate that, other than knowing that milk comes from cows, little thought or awareness is given to the actual process. I have a cousin in the US who told me once that she’d never eat lamb or veal because she doesn’t want to eat baby animals. She has no hesitation, however, in dowsing her strawberries with cream or pouring milk over her corn flakes, oblivious to the distress caused to both cow and calf by the dairy industry. Another example: a friend, upon hearing about the current NZ dairy exposé, said that she considers herself an intelligent, well-educated woman living in a dairy-exporting country and yet she’d never really realized that cows have to get pregnant and have a calf every year to provide our milk.

Dairying in New Zealand picks up a pretty bad environmental rap too. Run-off from dairy contaminates land and waterways, and there are no easy answers to this issue unless cow numbers are reduced, and that’s not good for profits—money remains the trump driver here, as it does in all industries. This article seems to advocate the popular American concept of housed cows rather than pasture-feeding as a possible solution for New Zealand. Ultimately dairy, along with other livestock production, is environmentally unsustainable as a growth industry in the long term. I really have to do a plug here for the excellent documentary “Cowspiracy” which certainly affected my way of thinking when I watched it a month or two ago.

There is also a growing contingent of health professionals who are questioning the health value of including dairy in our diet. If you do want to continue consuming dairy products, organic seems to be the way to go—not necessarily less cruel, but almost certainly healthier.

Lastly, if a growing awareness of the cruelty and/or environmental issues generated by the dairy industry bothers you, or you are concerned that you’re consuming more dairy products than are good for you, there are alternatives. While I’m not ready to go totally dairy free myself, I’ve found it easy to cut back on dairy consumption. Milk is easy to replace, as is ice cream. Cheese is a little harder, as is yogurt, and margarine is no way a healthy substitute for butter (but try coconut oil or olive oil for cooking). If going cold turkey on dairy won’t work for you, try cutting down. Try rice milk or almond milk or coconut milk on your cereal and in your smoothee.

Dairying is an industry. The cow has become a production unit. Her calf is a by-product. We as consumers don’t have to support this framework and ideology. Just because we’ve [seemingly] always done it this way doesn’t mean we need to continue to do so. Think, before you drink, and let your choices be conscious ones.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Cancer Resources and Stories That Inspire

Cancer is a funny old thing. Most of us sort of assume it’s something people get, and the causes are likely to be a mix of environmental and genetic, and that doctors know best about how to treat it—surgery, drugs/chemotherapy, and radiation. Most folks find a cancer diagnosis pretty scary. But there are some inspirational people out there whose stories may challenge conventional thought. 

Following along from my last blog post about my own experience with radiation following breast cancer surgery, I’d like to share this handful of interesting and inspiring resources:

Dr Lissa Rankin
I’m currently reading Dr Lissa Rankin’s latest book The Fear Cure, in which she examines the role of stress and our response to it as a factor in chronic diseases including cancer and heart disease. While stressful events are a moderate predictor of ill health, our individual responses to those stressful events, and our overall view of the world—is it safe or dangerous?—is an even bigger predictor. She includes useful exercises and guidelines for folks who might want to change to a more health-promoting mindset. Lissa’s earlier book Mind Over Medicine is also excellent. And worth sharing is this Facebook post from Lissa on the key recovery factors identified by over 3500 individuals in the Spontaneous Remissions Project—these are all folks who defied prediction and recovered from apparently incurable, terminal conditions including cancer.

The number one most common factor from the Spontaneous Remissions Project is food. In general, a switch to organic foods—mostly fruits and vegetables—with a tight curb on sugar, meat, dairy, and processed foods was identified by many as an essential element for recovery.

Jaxon (from his website)
One Kiwi who has shared his story and enthusiasm for green juices, smoothees, and alternative treatments is Jaxon who, in 2008, at the age of 26 was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. He’s still here, and looks amazing! His website A Creeps Guide to Cancer is an inspiration.

In a similar vein, Chris Work, now 36, had surgery for stage 3 bowel cancer twelve years ago. He’s still here today, does an awesome website called Chris Beat Cancer, and he also looks amazing. Like Jaxon, he pushes healthy food hard.

The cover says “Number 1 best-selling book on cancer in the world”—this is Dr David Servan-Schreiber’s Anti-Cancer:A New Way of Life which documents his crusade to change our perception of cancer following his own diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Observing that we all have cancer cells in our bodies, he wondered why some people develop cancer and others do not. Again, he hits nutrition hard, recognizes the role of stress, and advocates mediation. This is a wonderful personal story of survival and quest with a ton of useful information packed in. Five-star stuff.

One woman’s miracle cancer story is Dying to be Me by Anita Moorjani. This is not only a cancer survival story but also an account of a transformational near death experience. Her story is not about food but about self-forgiveness and spiritual awareness. An interesting and inspirational read.

Donna Eden’s wonderful book Energy Medicine is not about cancer or any other diseases, but about being healthy and joyous through understanding and nurturing the lines and patterns and sources of energy within and around your body. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you want to increase your understanding of how your body circulates fluid and energy, how to clear stagnant areas and strengthen meridians and chakras, and useful exercises for all sorts of problems, this book is a gold mine of wisdom.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, the discussion boards are a great place to meet up with others in the same boat and share stories, worries, tips, and learnings.

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do when faced with a cancer diagnosis--yours or for someone you love--is become educated. Don't blindly assume the cut/burn/poison routine is not only best, but the only thing you can do. Before and while you are making health care decisions, the best single resource I can recommend is Ty Bollinger's new documentary series "The Truth About Cancer: A Global Quest".  This trailer doesn't do it justice--there is just so much information here from so many health care professionals, scientists, and individual who have beat cancer about what they know, what they've learned, and what they've done. (At the moment, the documentary is being run live and for free, but I suspect after that, you'll only find snippits on YouTube and will have to buy it to see the whole series. It's not being run on television, but it should be!)

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Why I Walked Out on Breast Radiation

Some of my friends and family know I’ve recently had a bout with breast cancer. Others don’t. It’s not something I’ve shouted from the rooftops or felt like posting about on Facebook, like one often does with holidays, sunsets and magical meals.  I’ve considered the pros and cons of writing a blog post (or several) on the topic, which opens it up to a bigger and even less personal audience, and have been hesitant about that. But I feel like I want to share a bit of my experience.

Monday of this week, I called up the hospital where I’ve been undergoing radiation—7 treatments completed, 12 to go—and told them I wanted to cancel not only the day’s appointment, but that I wanted to pull out of the program entirely. “Radiation,” I told them, “is just not working for me.” Not surprisingly, I got a call back a few minutes later and a request for me to come in and talk to the oncologist on call, “Just to make sure you have all the information you need and that you understand the ramifications of withdrawing from the program.” I did go in and spoke with a very nice doctor, but he did not change my mind about withdrawing.

I’ve written several blog posts on cancer previously (and before my diagnosis): Do Antidepressants Cause Breast Cancer?, Are MammogramsGood for You?, and RIP David Servan-Schreiber—A Tribute to the Anti-Cancer Man among others. So this is not a topic that was unfamiliar to me prior to diagnosis. I can say, however, that actually HAVING a cancer diagnosis involves not only a pretty sharp learning curve, but it can also be an emotional roller coaster as you confront not only thoughts about your own mortality, but constant choices about what to do and what not to do, both medically and within your personal life.

I am pretty lucky. My single tumour was small and “stage 1” meaning it had not gone into the lymph nodes (see cancer stages), and when removed surgically the margins were deemed “clear” (meaning the cancer cells hadn’t spread into the tissue surrounding the tumour). Surgery was performed as a day procedure and involved a lumpectomy plus removal of four underarm lymph nodes for biopsy. Upon analysis, the tumour was found to have “medullary features”, which puts it into a fairly rare class as cancer tumours go (see medullary breast cancer), although going by appearance it was ranked “grade 3” which means aggressive (see cancer grades).

It was a no-brainer for me to turn down the offered chemotherapy. Anyone who had read a number of my blog posts, or who knows me personally, will know I’m seriously against blanket poisoning of environments to eradicate pests (anti-1080 folks will be LOL). Radiation, though, was on the cards from day one.

The day I got the news from the surgeon that my lump biopsy showed cancer, he followed in almost the same breath, with “I’ve scheduled your surgery for Friday. I can do either a mastectomy (breast removal) or breast conservation surgery (lumpectomy) which means removing the cancer and some surrounding tissue but preserving the bulk of the breast, but if I do that, you will have to follow that up with several weeks of radiation. If you don’t agree to do the radiation, I will need to do a mastectomy. What do you want to do?” Or words to that effect. Of course I opted for the less-invasive option and the matter of doing radiation seemed to be fait accompli.

It wasn’t until I met with my radiation oncologist six weeks after surgery, and she explained the plan and procedure and gave me a fact sheet that I began to have second thoughts. Breast radiation is used to kill any errant cancer cells that might have been left behind after surgery in the breast, and it reduces the risk of cancer recurring in the treated breast by 20-30%. That’s according to my oncologist, but statistics seem to vary. One recent study followed 1010 women who had had lumpectomies for 16 years. Half of the women had radiation following surgery, and half did not. Of those who had radiation, 18% had a tumour recurrence in the affected breast during that 16 years; of those who did not have a radiation follow-up, 31% had a local recurrence, yielding an impressive reduced recurrence rate of 48% with radiation. There was no difference in overall survival rate.

Radiation specifically targets fast-growing cells but it is not capable of knowing the difference between cancer cells and ordinary body cells, so any cells in the target area that are growing fast and dividing are killed or at least seriously compromised. That’s why the most common and obvious side effect of breast radiation is skin damage, because your skin cells are constantly renewing themselves and are fast-dividing cells, and because your skin is visible. Commonly, this results in a sunburn effect with reddened skin, sometimes peeling, and some skin discomfort which can be soothed (but not prevented) with allowed lotions. However, all of the cells within a breast are affected, and because they can’t actually tighten the beams of radiation enough, or go around curves, a bit of lung tissue, local ribs, and sometimes even a bit of the heart are also affected. Tiredness is a common early (and usually temporary) side effect, perhaps as a result of the impairing of the immune system (radiation kills lymphocytes), along with breast swelling, a sore chest wall, and sometimes the development of a cough due to lung damage.

Long term effects from radiation include a general “aging” and re-shaping of the breast, increased firmness of breast tissue, especially around the surgery scar(s), a slightly increased risk of rib fractures, and a slightly increased risk of developing cancer elsewhere. Radiation exposure does, after all, cause cancer.

Mayo Clinic illustration 
Having promised my surgeon that I’d do radiation, and encouraged to do so by everyone I met within the medical community and most friends and family members (the others tactfully giving no opinion other than, “Only you can make that decision”) I ploughed ahead and signed the paperwork authorizing the treatment. A few days later I found myself stretched out on the table as two cheerful technicians marked me up, aligned the equipment, and applied the tattoos (three mole-sized permanent marks). The following week, it was game on.

The odd thing was, every day I walked out of the hospital after my treatment—it is quick, and doesn’t hurt while it is happening—with the most horrible sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and a lump in my throat, and more than once I was crying. Why did doing this upset me so much?

It seemed like a betrayal to my body. Having been doing its best to counteract a problem (medullary cancers are attacked by the immune system, so my body was fighting the cancer even before the surgery), I first let it be cut up with surgery (and I’d do that again) and then just when recovery was looking pretty good and the wounds were looking somewhat healed, here I was, further damaging my poor breast tissue, all under the assumption that there MIGHT be some errant cancer cells doing a walkabout in my breast, and that if so, they’d be fast-enough growing to be whacked by the radiation. (Medullary cancers, I’ve learned, are often not fast growing). Furthermore, I kept thinking “at least when this is over, I can begin to heal. In a month.” Um…wait a minute.  When this is over I can begin? Shouldn’t medicine be about healing and supporting health now? Why inflict further damage to already damaged tissue as a “preventative”?

I realized that I was doing these radiation treatments mostly because other people thought I should. I realized my gut feeling was to walk away. My heart and throat told me to walk away after each dose. And even my cognitive/head thinking was finding it increasingly difficult to justify the pro over the cons. My body wasn’t in alignment with my actions. And nothing about undergoing radiation was in alignment with my core belief that the body is a self-healing ecosystem that should be nurtured and helped to heal at all times.  It felt wrong. “What would you do if fear wasn’t stopping you?” I asked myself. And the answer was clear.

 It took courage to call the hospital and say I wasn’t going back. It meant accepting that I could be making a mistake, and the cancer could come back, and the authorities will scold me if it does. But it feels like a weight has lifted. Whatever comes in the future, I accept the results of my decision.  And although I find it hard to consider this cancer experience a blessing as some “more advanced souls” might do, I acknowledge the power of this episode to broaden my experiences and clarify my values.

See my next post for recommended resources and inspirational stories about cancer survival.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Rotten Tomatoes

Like most folks, I’ve carried around this sort of vague idea of how genetic engineering works, with images of white-coated scientists bent over their super microscopes, physically cutting and splicing gene sequences between species to create new varieties. Authorities proclaim them “safe”, anti-GMO folks say they’re not. I climbed on the anti-GMO bandwagon not so much because of safety concerns over GMOs themselves—after all, the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) tell us they are “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS)—but because they entice farmers to overuse agri-chemical killers (herbicides and pesticides) that many GMO plants are altered to resist.

Reading Steven Druker’s new book “Altered Genes, TwistedTruth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food has Subverted Science,Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public” has been a profound eye-opener. I think the story from the book that best encapsulates for me the danger, not only of these foods, but also the danger of the cavalier attitude of authorities that are supposedly responsible for our food safety, is the story of Calgene’s Flavr Savr™ tomato. I’d like to briefly share that tale here.

Back in the early 1990s when genetic engineering was in its infancy, California genetics company Calgene (later acquired by Monsanto) took on the tomato. It was well known that consumers preferred vine-ripened tomatoes, but by the time ripe tomatoes were picked, processed, packaged, transported, and landed on supermarket shelves, they had often gone soft. Tomatoes picked green stayed firm, but lacked flavour. Calgene tackled this problem with genetic engineering.

Calgene scientists modified their tomatoes by supressing the PG enzyme that causes fruit to go soft. They did this by copying out that section of the enzyme gene and reversing it, then reinserting the flipped segment back into the enzyme with the aid of the 35s promoter from the cauliflower mosaic virus. (That detail isn’t all that important, except to point out that the process of genetic modification is far more complicated than most folks realize.) The new tomato looked good.

The US FDA encouraged Calgene to do a safely trial on rats, so they did. In that first 28-day trial, some rats ate the GE Flavr Savr tomatoes, some ate ordinary tomatoes, and some ate no tomatoes at all. At the end of the trial, they found that 10% (4 out of 40) of the rats who had eaten the Flavr Savr™ variety had developed stomach lesions (bleeding) while the others hadn’t. Fluke? They hoped so. They tried the test again, and this time 20% of the Flavr Savr™ rats had stomach lesions. So they tried the test a third time, and this time, again, 20% of the Flavr Savr™ rats had stomach lesions, but so did a few of the non-Flavr Savr™ rats. Understandably concerned, the researchers took their results to the FDA.

Some of the scientists at the FDA who looked at the results expressed their serious concerns about the safety of these tomatoes too, but while they were considering what to do, the administrative branch of the FDA brought in a new ruling stating that GM foods were to be considered GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) and that safety studies involving animal test subjects need not be done because GM foods are, by definition, “substantially equivalent” to non-GM foods and therefore need no pre-market approval (1992).

Since animal testing was no longer required, results of these rat tests on Flavr Savr™ could be ignored. The FDA ruling allowed Calgene to proceed with Flavr Savr™ production, and Flavr Savr™ tomatoes were brought to the market in 1994 as a premium-price product. They were discontinued in 1997, ostensibly due to Calgenes "inexperience in business."

There is an even more frightening kicker here. In the Flavr Savr™ study documents, there is a small endnote that reports that 7 rats of the original study DIED within two weeks of consuming the tomatoes. The researchers attributed the deaths vaguely to “husbandry”, and replaced the dead rats, apparently DURING THE TRIAL PERIOD, with fresh, healthy rats. Rather than being investigated, this astounding revelation and violation of standard testing practice appears simply as a note in the study.

The Flavr Savr™ tomato did not survive in the marketplace, but the FDA precedent set—that GM foods do not require animal testing because they are assumed safe—and safer than food additives, which do require testing— has survived. I believe this assumption is profoundly disturbing.

I highly recommend Steven Druker’s book. Druker is a public interest attorney, and although at times the book reads more like a legal argument than a general-interest or scientific analysis, it is clear he has done his homework. He helped initiate a lawsuit against the FDA forcing them to release their files on genetically engineered foods, and his specialty area of expertise is food safety.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Food Matters

Most of us in the Western World sort of take food for granted. And most of us assume the foods we eat help us to stay healthy. We hear about the dangers of “junk food”, of course, and are reminded that fats and sugar are naughty, and we may limit our salt intake, and pop a few vitamins, but most of us assume that what we eat, assuming we don’t live on Coke and French fries, is generally okay.

But I think there’s a quiet revelation AND a quiet revolution taking place. More and more, folks are starting to ask questions like

·         Is industrial-farmed food really good for us? As good as it can be?
·         Are the old food guidelines still accurate?
·         What about genetically modified food?
·         What about herbicides and pesticides on/in our food?
·         What is this acid/alkaline business?
·         Should I be eating organic? Or is that a waste of money?
·         What about probiotics and bacteria in the gut?
·         Why is gluten such a big deal these days?

I’ve gone to eating more and more organic foods. I’m not being fanatical about it—price and convenience still matter—but where I can make organic choices easily and within budget I do so. I also recognize my buying power as a consumer to make a statement saying “this is food I want”. Why go organic? Well, this tends to mean less/fewer/no chemicals in/on the food, supporting growers who care about the soil and land as well as selling a product, and if not necessarily a significantly healthier product than that produced by industrial farming, at least organic foods are not a less healthy choice.

I’m also reading about GM foods (and don’t much like what I’m reading), getting increasingly concerned about the long-term (and usually subtle) negative health effects of food routinely sprayed with chemicals (and how that is affecting our environment), exploring new theories on the negative impact of foods that makes your body too acidic, and taking a real interest in the important role of gut bacteria and how the foods we eat affect that.

This post is just a first pass on these topics, just raising the issues. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to do individual posts on each of these topics. I’ll keep you “posted”. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

Fat Versus Sugar

Both of these bad boys (sugar and fat) have a bum rap, so it’s not surprising that the BBC Horizon show took it on to compare and contrast them. They found two identical-twin doctors and for a month, put the lads on contrasting diets. While one doc only got to eat sugary and high-carb foods, the other spent his month chowing down on all the meat, fat, and dairy products he wanted. While it made for a moderately-entertaining program, there were some unexpected surprises in the results.
The Diet Docs: Chris & Alexander van Tulleken
 The two docs were tested before, during, and after the month, and here’s a brief summary of some of the things they found. 

--The doc on the high-sugar/carb diet performed better than his high-fat-diet brother during the month on all activities requiring intense concentration or physical exertion. Whether playing to win an intense stock-market simulation game or pedalling their bikes uphill, the sugar-diet doc cruised while the fat-diet doc struggled.
--The doc on the sugar/carb diet was happier and more upbeat than his high-fat-food brother.
--Neither diet had any effect on cholesterol levels.
--While the sugar-diet doc lost a little weight over the month, the fat-diet doc lost a whopping 4 kilos (9 pounds). The bad news is that half of that was muscle-loss.

I don’t think it was quite a fair comparison, however, because the sugar/carb doc got to include fruit and vegetables in his diet, while his high-fat brother did not. Not only are fruits and vegetables nutritional powerhouses (too long on a no-fruit/veg diet could have left Fat Food Doc with scurvy, for example), they provide fiber necessary for proper gut and bowel function. So I think it would have been a more meaningful contest if Fat Food Doc had been allowed at least some salad greens.

The program went on to talk about some of the actual scientific studies done on the fat vs. sugar diet issue. One study involved rats. They found that rats fed sugary diets, like rats fed fatty diets, did not overeat or gain weight. However, offer the rats cheesecake or ice cream, where high levels of fat and sugar are combined in a tasty way, and they turned into rodent blimps in no time.

While I can’t seem to find a link to the whole doco on the net, this write-up about the experiment by twin-doc Alexander van Tulleken (the fat-diet Doc) is interesting. 

Fortunately, managing our diets for optimum health isn’t an either/or proposition. Some fats are essential for good health; nutritional power foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are essential for good health; and a moderate intake of a whole variety of foods coupled with daily exercise may sound like old, boring advice but it still stands up as a sound strategy. Just remember to go easy on the cheesecake.