Is the answer to curing cancer in a “moonshot” research effort or changing our habits?

In his last State of the Union Address, President Obama appointed Vice President, Joe Biden to head the “moonshot” effort to cure cancer (Obama, 2016). Biden’s part in this effort is to help eliminate controversy and obstacles that may stand in the way of advancements to finding a cure. This is an effort that has bipartisan support. Cancer is such a widespread disease that most people’s lives have been touched in one way or another by it. However, is a cure possible? By stepping back and taking a broad view of the past efforts to heal people, the answer to curing cancer may involve more than most people expect.

           The earliest recorded efforts to treat cancer dates back to 3,000 B.C. Writings on Egyptian papyrus from that time “describes 8 cases of tumors or ulcers of the breast that were removed by cauterization with a tool called the fire drill” (ACS, 2014). Treatments have improved over the centuries, although the approach to treating cancer and many other diseases is the same as it was 3,000 years ago. People want a magic pill; they want to take a very complicated issue and reduce it to one simple answer.

          The problem with this reductionism attitude is that the human body and diseases that affect it are incredibly complicated. In many scientific studies, the tactic is to take one component and attempt to see how one factor affects the overall body and disease. This is generally how modern medicine works. If a person has a medical problem, there is a pill for that. High blood pressure, there is a pill for that. High cholesterol, there is a pill for that. To its credit reductionism in medicine has produced many advances that have improved and lengthened the life of the average person. The reductionism approach to research has been used in the search for a cure to cancer with some good results. However, cancer is still one of the major diseases throughout the world, especially in the United States. Perhaps it’s time to widen the scope of the approach to reducing the number of cancer cases. Any decrease in the number of cancer cases is a victory to some family.

          In research studies such as the Nurses’ Health Study, over a quarter million female nurses participated (Nurses’ Health Study, 2016). One of the goals was to determine if fat in the diet had a connection to breast cancer. After investing millions of dollars in research that began in 1970 and ran for decades, the study produced very little information that correlated fat intake to breast cancer. The study determined that “breast cancer risk does not rise with increased intakes of fat, meat, dairy or saturated fat” (Campbell, 2005). The research project had a significant number of factors that were analyzed and produced masses of information. However when addressing the results of how fat intake affected breast cancer, one of the lead researchers Dr. Meir Stampfer, stated: “this has been our greatest failure – that we have not learned more about what people can do to lower their risk” (Marchione, 2001). Perhaps, the answer to reducing the incidence of cancer may not be in the treatment of one factor such as fat, it may be in changing the dietary lifestyle of society.

          To get a good understanding of how dietary lifestyle affects people, compare two studies of very different dietary lifestyles. Participants in The Nurses’ Health Study are primarily women from the United States that consume animal protein as a part of their diet. In that study, changes in the types and level of fat had no noticeable effect on the development of breast cancer. The study did not attempt to show the impact of animal protein versus plant protein in the development of cancer.   The Cornell China Study is a study of lifestyle and diet of thousands of people in China that primarily consume a plant-based diet. The New York Times called The Cornell China Study the “Grand Prix of epidemiology” (Brody, 1990). They went further to explain “Sixty-five hundred Chinese have each contributed 367 facts about their eating and other habits that could ultimately help them and Americans preserve their health and prolong their lives” (Brody, 1990).

          The Cornell China Study was lead by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University. Dr. Campbell’s research found that diets with lower concentrations of protein had a lower incidence of cancer. Dr. Campbell said, “dietary protein proved to be so powerful in its effect that we could turn on and turn off cancer growth by changing the level consumed” (Campbell, 2005, p.6). The study got even more precise by showing that not all proteins promoted cancer growth. “Casein which makes up 87% of cow’s milk protein, promoted all stages of the cancer process” (Campbell,2005, p.6). In the study, plant protein had no effect on the growth of cancer at all.

          If Vice President Biden wants to lead the effort to cure cancer, his efforts would be more productive if he and the government put more resources into helping people understand how animal protein and plant protein affects the human body. Living in one of the richest countries in the world has lead to Americans having some of the worst dietary habits. The challenge for Vice President Biden is to change the dietary habits of an entire nation. The consumption of animal protein is an enormous part the American economy. Companies such as Tyson Foods, ConAgra, Kraft Foods, Smithfield Foods, and General Mills have billions of dollars in revenue and employee thousands and thousands of employees. Their primary products are animal based. Their presence in the economy is politically and legislatively entrenched.

          Americans have a growing appetite for meat which in part is based on the marketing efforts of the meat industry that is sponsored by the US Government. The average American eats 128 grams of meat per day (Daniel, 2011, p 578). The public perception is that eating beef is healthy because the United States Government promotes it. “The Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985 directs the Secretary of Agriculture to implement a federal program to promote the marketing and consumption of beef” (Champoux, 2006, p.1108). The United States Department of Agriculture provides funds to assist with the general endorsement of beef consumption through a program referred to as a commodity checkoff program. A dollar from the sale of each head of cattle sold is a tax used for the promotion of beef consumption. The “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” (Champoux, 2006, p.1107) advertisement is a commodity checkoff advertisement campaign to promote beef as a healthy and versatile meal.

          The beef industry goes beyond advertising and creates its own research as propaganda. A study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that a dinner with beef is healthier than the average healthy American diet (Roussell, 2011, p.1). This study shows that the average American meal has 287 milligrams of cholesterol as compared to a meal with lean beef at 168 milligrams of cholesterol (Roussell, 2011, p.3). The perception that the study is communicating is a 41% decrease in food cholesterol is good. The only problem with that logic is 168 milligrams of cholesterol is still greater than zero which is the level of cholesterol in a plant-based diet meal.

          Higher cholesterol leads to obesity. The American Institute for Cancer Research recent report estimates that 351 cancer cases a day are connected to obesity (AICR, 2016). That brings up the question of why a research study would try to sway readers to think that beef is healthy. The study was funded by the government subsidized Beef Checkoff Program, which is a part of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a group that co-sponsors the “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” (Champoux, 2006, p.1107) advertising campaign. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study is biased because it was funded by the Beef Checkoff Program to promote the sale of beef.

          To be fair, almost all commodities in the United States have a check off program. For example, the “cotton, the fabric of our lives” (ACPI, n.d.) advertisement campaign is a commodity checkoff program. Programs like the beef, dairy, pork, poultry checkoff programs are the strongest and most heavily funded.

          Vice President Biden is supposed to lead the Nation to find a cure for cancer. Would he and the Nation consider anything less than an absolute cure a failure? Would a 20%, a 40% or even a 60% reduction in cancer be a success? Yes, any decrease in the incidence of cancer would be a success. A decline in the number of cancer cases diagnosed would mean more sons, daughters, mothers and fathers that would live longer healthier lives. Perhaps we need Meatless Monday, Tofu Tuesday, Watermelon Wednesday, Tomato Thursday, Frijoles’ Fridays, Soy Saturday and Salsa Sunday. For those that can accept the facts of the research, the answer to drastically reducing the incidence of cancer is the elimination of animal protein from their diet. Yet it may be unreasonable to expect everyone to change their dietary habits suddenly. Perhaps, with education and an understanding that changes in “dietary protein […] could turn on and turn off cancer growth” (Campbell, 2005, p.6) will help people begin to eat healthier and, reduce the incidence of cancer. It might not be the magic pill society is in search of; however it will help many people avoid cancer and live longer lives.


American Cancer Society. (2014). The history of cancer. Retrieved from

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Brody, J. E. (1990, May 8). Huge study of diet indicts fat and meat. New York Times. Retrieved from

Campbell, T. C., & Campbell, T. M. (2005). The China study: the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted and the startling implications for diet, weight loss and long-term health. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

Champoux, M. (2006). Uncovering coherence in compelled subsidy of speech doctrine : Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Ass’n, 125 S. Ct. 2055. Harvard Journal OfLaw & Public Policy, vol. 29(3), pp. 1107-1108.

Daniel C.R., Cross, A.J., Koebnick, C, and Sinha, R. (2011). Trends in meat consumption in the USA. Public Health Nutrition, 14, pp 578. doi:10.1017/S1368980010002077.

Marchione, M. (2001, July 16). Taking the long view. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, p. 2G.

Nurses’ Health Study. (2016). Our story – nurses’ health study. Retrieved from Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital website:

Obama, B.H. (2016), State of the Union Address, Retrieved from The White House Website:

Roussell, M. A., Hill, A. M., Gaugler, T. L., West, S. G., Vanden Heuvel, J. P., Alaupovic, P., Gillies, P. J. (2011). Beef in an optimal lean diet study: effects on lipids, lipoproteins, and apolipoproteins. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.016261