Teach Us to Treasure the Bird in Hand

This is an article recently published by David L. Katz, MD, Founder, True Health Initiative. I have embellished it a bit. It’s powerful and very relevant. I would encourage you to read it completely. This is one in a series of articles where professionals provide advice for the next U.S. president.

It could be re-titled, “We will never cure Cancer, because we are too invested in NOT curing It.

Dear Madam / Mr. President: For more than twenty years, across an expanse of both democratic and republican administrations, we have neglected one of the greatest potential advances in the history of public health.

I invite you, and I implore you, to lead us toward that reachable, luminous prize: the addition of years to countless lives, the addition of life to countless years. We can eliminate up to 80% of the total burden of chronic disease — heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, dementia, etc. — by applying knowledge of the root causes of such disease not only now in hand, but in hand already for decades. You could pledge your commitment to this campaign, and lead us. And because you can, you should. Lives — lives we know how to save — are at stake.

I respectfully urge you to make the combination of longevity and vitality, followed more often than not by a timely, swift, and gentle exit into that inevitable night, the new American standard. I ask this of you because it can be done.

Like so many others, I was moved when your predecessor, whom I admire, leveraged the imprimatur of his high office, and the State of the Union address, to propound his will against the menace of cancer. I was moved in particular because the enemy was not diffuse and pervasive, but seen through an intimate window. I felt the pain and loss in the resolute set of Joe Biden’s face. This was a nation’s mission, but born of a family’s loss.

We are moved by such things. We are, despite our proclivities for fractious discord, indelibly caught up in one another, in the common motivations of humanity. At a level deeper than our discords, we know we are family. When a menace invades such private spaces, when it roils the expression of a face we know, we are moved. We are motivated to act.

So it is that I admire the assertion of will, the pledge to find a way to end all cancer. But alas, it is misguided.

President Obama likened curing “cancer” to reaching the moon, and were the analogy robust, we might indeed see it done. But the analogy falls from the sky.

Even those decades ago when President Kennedy committed us to the moon, we had in hand the technologies to get there. We knew where there was; it was a single destination. There was one, clear, achievable mission.

The cure for all cancer is not a single mission, but many. Cancer is not one disease, but many. Ending cancer is not one destination like the moon, but more like the scattershot of stars in the cosmos. Getting there will depend on innovations yet to be conceived. When we know so little of the ultimate ways, we are ill advised to assert that presidential will reliably presupposes them all.

We should continue to foster and fund the already impressive advances against cancer. We have seen considerable success. We struggle, too, against great frustration born of ignorance we may hope to overcome.

But we already know the short list of lifestyle practices — avoiding tobacco, eating optimally, being active routinely, sleeping adequately, dissipating stress effectively, and nurturing our social connections — that can not only help prevent a large percentage of all cancers and an even greater majority of other leading disease killers including dementia, but can even modify the contributions of DNA to our defense. Studies show that lifestyle practices can throw the epigenetic switches that forestall the advent of cancer, and its progression once begun.

I humbly urge you, Madam/Mr. President, to promise us a mission we know can be fulfilled, and lead us in the keeping of it.

Admittedly, this flight plan of mine is rather pedestrian in contrast to far-flung stars, the shine of Nobel Prizes. Progress is gauged in simple, lifestyle choices every citizen arguably owns. But if so homely a route, so long not taken, leads to the most luminous of prizes, surely in this instance those ends fully justify such means.

By asking you to lead, I am not refuting the relevance of personal responsibility. But the choices we all make are ultimately subordinate to the choices we all have. You have something to say about the choices we all have.

In those places around the world where longevity, vitality, and peace at the end of life prevail, it is not courtesy of citizens battling against the currents of their culture. It is where the currents of culture lead toward, rather than away from, just such blessings.

Here, we wring our hands not just about cancer, but dementia, stroke, and heart disease; about rampant obesity and the rise of type 2 diabetes in our children. Yet, we continue to peddle multi-colored marshmallows to those very children, as ‘part of a complete breakfast.’ You might persuade us out of our insouciant stupor, prod us to ask: what part?

In our country, we encourage good and moderate food choices, even as we market food willfully engineered to be addictive. Where is the outrage against such hypocrisy? You might lead us in outrage, and by opposing its reasons, help us end them. But alas, its that’s money thing again.

Ending cancer is not a moonshot; it is, for now, a pipe dream, sprinkled with stardust. But we could banish tobacco to the ashtray of history’s bad ideas, and you could lead us there. We could end the subordination of what diet could do for the health of people and planet alike to predatory profiteering, and you could lead us there. We could be a culture that doesn’t feel compelled to count our every step, because we consider our native, animal vitality and the chance to exercise it a reason to count our blessings; and you could lead us there.

Good may, of course, issue from reaching for the stars; or, more parochially, for that proverbial bird in the bush. Good may issue from ardent aspiration. But there is the danger of promises that cannot be kept, and the disillusionment they engender.

Please beware the reach that exceeds our grasp. That may serve to rattle the bushes, but will never claim their contents. Those bushes are home to things with feathers, flighty ever.

We have known for two decades and more how to eliminate some 80% of all chronic disease; we have known how to enhance the length and vitality of life. Please, make us the generation that turns what we have long known into what we routinely do to advance the human condition. Lead us, and persuade us, to treasure what’s in hand.

And please, beware the conflation of will for way. That itch may tempt your hands to clench, those fists to pound the lectern as you proclaim the inclinations of your power, and glare past the horizon. In the hush that follows, you may open your hand to find the ruin of a beautiful, luminous bird that was in your hand all along. As it is, and has long been, in the hands of us all.

MaxCo Advisors

April, 2016

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