Don’t panic about meat and cancer, say doctors

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Don’t panic about meat and cancer, say doctors

After the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of World Health Organization (WHO), classified processed meat and red meat as carcinogenic to human in October, Koreans were as confused and alarmed as other people around the world.

Despite the government’s effort to reassure people, retailers in Korea saw a sharp drop in meat sales.

The IARC on Oct. 26 classified processed meat as Group 1 carcinogens, placing cured and processed meats in the same category as alcohol, arsenic and tobacco. It dubbed red meat as a probably carcinogenic substance, categorizing it as a Group 2 carcinogen.

The IARC said 50 grams of processed meat each day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent and unprocessed red meat, including beef, lamb and pork, had associations with colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

When asked about the announcement, six major cancer centers in Korea -- Seoul Asan Medical Center, Samsung Medical Center, Seoul National University Hospital, Severance Hospital, Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital, National Cancer Center (NCC) -- all agreed that excessive intake of ham, sausage and red meat is a factor that can cause colorectal cancer.

But they stressed that meat is much less of a health threat than smoking or drinking.

According to NCC data from 2012, colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer and the most rapidly increasing cancer in Korea.

Incidence rates of colorectal cancer increased from 21.2 persons per 100,000 population in 1999 to 38.6 persons per 100,000 populations in 2012. That figure rises to 50 persons among men.

“Korea is in the top group for numbers of colorectal cancer patients along with Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, and a common factor is that they drink a lot of alcohol,” said Jeong Seung-yong, director of the colorectal cancer center at Seoul National University Hospital. “Britain and the United States, where people eat the most meat in the world, are not in the top 10. It’s more urgent to reduce alcohol consumption first given the eating habits of Koreans.”

“Patients often ask why they caught colorectal cancer when they don’t eat that much meat,” said Sohn Dae-kyung, director of the NCC’s colorectal cancer center. “But many of them ignore the fact that smoking and drinking are much more dangerous.”

The WHO admits that the number of people who could die from cancer from eating meat are much less than people who die from smoking- or drinking-related diseases, or even from air pollution like fine dust.

“We are classifying processed meat in the Group 1 carcinogens because we have evidence that it causes cancer,” the WHO said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s as dangerous as smoking and drinking.”

“Polyps are considered signs of colorectal cancer and it’s natural to have them when people get old,” said Jang Hong-seok, director of colorectal cancer center at Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital. “It’s natural to see an increase in the number of bowel cancer patients and I don’t see that processed meat or red meat are critical factors.”

Should people stop eating ham or red meat to prevent colorectal cancer? Ahn Jung-bae, director of colorectal cancer center at Severance Hospital says otherwise.

“We recommend patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer to eat adequate amounts of red meat,” Ahn said. “For Koreans, eating fewer carbohydrates might be better [to prevent colorectal cancer].”

“The diets of our ancestors were more vegetarian and consumption of meat increased rapidly in recent years,” said Yoo Chang-sik, director of the Cancer Center at Asan Medical Center. “Some may think we are not good genetically at digesting meat or are more vulnerable to possible toxic materials during digestion, but we should first carry out studies.

“Eating ham sandwiches or hot dogs once or twice a week won’t cause colorectal cancer.”

Colorectal cancer can be prevented ? if discovered early.

“It’s the only cancer that can be prevented by medical checkups,” said Kim Hee-cheol, director of the colorectal cancer center at Samsung Medical Center. “After a colonoscopy at age of 40, it’s considered safe for five years if there were no polyps, and more regular checkups can be scheduled if there were polyps found.”

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