Campaigns to discourage smoking and the consumption of fatty foods could go a long way toward reducing the high cancer rates among the nation's poor, medical experts said yesterday at a two-day conference in Baltimore.
"It's the fat that's killing you and your families," said Dr. Tazewell Banks, a professor of medicine at Howard University.
The conference, which focused on high cancer rates among the poor, was sponsored by the University of Maryland, Howard University and the American Cancer Society.
In an address peppered with dramatic flourishes, Dr. Banks reachedfor a 7-pound hunk of rubber shaped like a leg of lamb and tossed it to a surprised listener, who buckled under its weight.
The average American, he said, eats that much fat every month. Diets rich in fried foods and fatty meats are popular among poor Americans -- and that, he said, probably explains why poor blacks and whites suffer disproportionately from cancer.
"If you hate your kids, send them into traffic or send them to McDonald's," he said in an appeal to reduce consumption of fried foods and high-fat meats.
Epidemiological data link prostate, breast, colon and uterine cancer to diets high in fat, and Dr. Banks said scientists are debating evidence that could link fat to other cancers as well.
"The general consensus is that 35 percent of all malignancies are probably diet-related," said Dr. Howard Parnes, an oncologist at the University of Maryland Cancer Center.
More certain is the link between smoking and lung cancer, a disease that strikes black men twice as frequently as white men.
The Rev. Jesse Brown Jr., a Philadelphia minister, said a coalition of clergymen and community activists is pushing legislation that would ban all cigarette advertising there.
Earlier this year, the coalition launched a high-profile campaign that persuaded the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to cancel plans to market its new Uptown cigarette brand in Philadelphia. The company had planned a marketing blitz targeting black consumers.
The conference, which began Friday, focused heavily on the high incidence of cancer among blacks -- as well as their high death rate due to cancer.
Among America's ethnic groups, blacks have the highest incidence of cancer, and compared to whites, they die much faster once they get cancer.
Speakers all but ruled out a once-popular theory that blacks were genetically predisposed to certain cancers. Instead, they espoused the idea that lifestyle considerations like smoking and high-fat diets predispose them to certain cancers while economic conditions prevent many from getting early detection and treatment.
"Black Americans have a 38 percent five-year survival rate while white Americans have a 50 percent survival rate," said Dr. Harold Freeman, director of surgery at Harlem Hospital in New York and the immediate past president of the American Cancer Society.
In a decade-old study at Harlem Hospital, which serves a heavily black neighborhood, doctors studied 165 women admitted with breast cancer. Only 30 percent of the women survived five years after their initial diagnoses, compared with a 60 percent survival rate for breast cancer patients in the rest of the country.