Every now and then I see my wife, a professor of 19th-century British literature, reading a new lit-crit article with a title like “String Theory in Browning’s ‘Fra Lippo Lippi.'” That’s when I remark that everything worth saying about literature was written before 1950. I realize, of course, that’s snarky nonsense. Sometimes, though, it seems academic disciplines have become so crowded—and the pressure to publish so intense—that people dream up far-fetched topics just to check the publishing box on their tenure cases.
Having been treated for prostate cancer, I read a lot of studies on that subject, and I often detect that same Malthusian, too-many-researchers-in-the-field dynamic. It’s not so much that the authors strain credulity with outlandish claims—it’s that each study identifies yet another potential risk factor for developing prostate cancer. The sheer accumulation of possible “causes” leaves a man wondering what he actually can eat or do without jeopardizing his prostate health.
What Doesn’t Cause Prostate Cancer?
Over the years, they’ve identified inherited gene mutations, obesity, smoking, diet, chemical exposure, prostate infections, STDs, and vasectomies as potential risk factors. So, essentially, any guy who attended a party in ’80s is screwed. Various other studies have associated fish oil (about which I’ve written), folic acid, stearic acid, and high levels of beta-carotene and zinc with increased risk of prostate cancer. Still more researchers point the finger at dairy products (due to their high levels of calcium and bovine growth hormone), calcium supplements, non-organic red meat (also for the hormones present), microwave popcorn, canned tomatoes, and french fries. Ugh.
At various points in my life, I’ve had doctors recommend marine fish oil capsules and multivitamins loaded with folic acid and beta-carotene. So even the most conscientious health care consumer can follow doctor’s orders and wind up—theoretically—putting himself at higher risk of prostate cancer.
In addition to the drumbeat of research studies identifying yet another dangerous food or supplement, there’s the maddening tendency of medical researchers to contradict each other. One study is published maligning marine fish oil, only to be followed by another calling the first one “bad science.” It’s tempting just to dismiss all this internecine squabbling, given the profession’s pathetic, decades-long track record on identifying the causes of heart disease: While we were being told to eat SnackWells to avoid dietary fat, heart disease rates sky rocketed. None of it inspires confidence.
There’s Always Commonsense
Where does this leave the man trying to avoid prostate cancer, or the prostate cancer survivor wanting to avoid a recurrence? I’m a big fan of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where I was treated last year. On their website they provide a wide array of wonderfully reasonable articles on wellness for cancer patients. One such article on Nutrition and Prostate Cancer breaks down the components of good prostate health as follows:
- Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight
- Eating a balanced, mostly plant-based diet
- Limiting red meat and avoiding processed meat
- Exercising regularly
The 26-page article goes into substantially more detail than this, of course—and I encourage any man concerned about prostate cancer to check it out. But what I love about the breakdown above is that it’s good advice for living life. Exercising, eating right, and maintaining a healthy weight have topped the list of Captain Obvious health recommendations for decades. But we Americans, preferring our solutions in pill form or as trendy diets, tend to overlook the obvious or inconvenient advice.
Meanwhile, researchers will continue to publish, and their findings, splashed all over Internet news outlets, will bewilder us. No man is guaranteed a hall pass when it comes to prostate cancer, and no cancer survivor is guaranteed a good prognosis. But every one of us will benefit from abundant exercise and dietary moderation. That much, at least, is clear.