Dr. Kenneth Kunz interview – lower cancer rates among middle and long-distance runners

December 14, 2015 2

Kunz_Flash© Copyright – 2015 – Athletics Illustrated

“My academic life, which you know is centered around using my 30-plus years in the field of medicine and cancer research to teach and educate people how to live life in a personally responsible, productive and generous way…”

Dr. Kenneth Kunz is an oncologist, cancer consultant and researcher. He is also a runner, competing primarily in middle-distance events and mostly the 800-metres.

He feels that the 800 is the most daunting, unforgiving and exhilarating of all events.

“You need to be in top form, plus have a natural mind for tactics; you can’t make any mistakes because it’s over so fast.”

At age 56, he plans to continue to run personal bests in the distance. “I’m going all-out for it,” He shares with enthusiasm as we discuss a Finnish study that indicates lower cancer rates in former middle and long-distance athletes.

Personal bests (50-plus age-group)

400m – 65.8
600m – 1:46.8
800m – 2:29.15

Christopher Kelsall: I understand that an article was published last year in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport showing that former elite runners developed much less cancer later in life compared to the general population. What exactly did this study show and how would you explain the results?

Kenneth Kunz: This was a 2014 study from Finland that followed 2,448 former elite male athletes over a span of several decades to see what their cancer rates would be like later in life. The investigators wanted to see if they could confirm the findings of previous studies which showed that physical activity decreased the risk of certain cancers. The results of the Finnish study supported the fact that cancer rates were lower in former athletes when compared to the general male population. Interestingly, the rates of cancer were especially low in middle distance and long distance runners, and jumpers, who had only 51%, 57% and 60% the cancer rates of the standard population. In terms of specific subtypes of cancers, athletes only had 40% the amount of lung cancer, 23% the amount of kidney cancer, and 70% the amount of colon cancer as the otherwise healthy, general population.

CK: How would these cancer rates compare to for example 50 years ago?

KK: Cancer is the most prevalent disease now, but a hundred years ago infections and epidemics like cholera, smallpox and typhus were the major killers. With the availability of a clean water supply, effective sewage systems, reliable food sources and the development of vaccines and antibiotics, people began to live long enough to develop chronic, lifestyle related illnesses such as heart disease, stroke and cancer. It is these last three diseases that have remained the largest killers over the last century. Fifty years ago it was heart disease, followed by cancer, then stroke. Now, because we have become better at managing heart disease, cancer has become the biggest killer.

Our ancestors had to keep moving for survival, foraging all day long simply to get enough calories to survive that day. So heart disease, stroke and cancer were probably infrequent causes of death prehistorically. Now, an overabundance of inexpensive, readily available, high calorie, good-tasting, poor quality food, and particularly sugar, which is a potent, long-term, slow-acting carcinogen, combined with tobacco and inactivity are the primary reasons why cancer is so prevalent. The average Canadian is at high risk for cancer today: the Canadian Cancer Society estimates there will be 196,900 new cases of cancer and 78,000 deaths in 2015. That means that two out of every five Canadians will get cancer at some point during their lifetime and one in four will ultimately die of it. But the Finnish study shows that those figures can be changed for the good, depending on how you live your life.

CK: In reference to the study titled, “Lifetime physical activity and cancer incidence—A cohort study of male former elite athletes in Finland” would you suggest that the lifestyle of the runner having an effect on their health, specifically related to cancers, suggest that a predisposition to certain cancers may be less likely than currently believed?

KK: Yes, the study coordinators concluded that the basic, ongoing day-to-day lifestyle of the former athletes was the reason that cancer rates were so low as these individuals got older. It was not so much the intense period of physical activity when they were young, but rather how the athletes continued to live their lives when their competitive careers were over. Smoking, overeating, alcohol consumption and inactivity all combine to form a kind of ‘armchair suicide’ which accounts for most of the cancer cases we see today. And these factors are superimposed on the reality that people are living longer, giving these carcinogens more time to act.  The former elite athletes in this study tended to smoke less, were somewhat leaner, and engaged in more frequent, more intense and longer duration leisure-time sports activities than their counterparts in the standard population. Movement itself, in my opinion, is a potent anticancer ‘agent’.

What would be your recommendation for a person who has not done much in the way of exercise in the past and begins to fit the profile: overweight, atrophied muscles, less than optimum diet, perhaps a smoker and drinker?

KK: I have good news on that score: the answer is simply to get moving. Current research shows that the human body is a fountain of continually renewing cells—liver, lung, bone, brain, heart, skin, muscle—you name it, every tissue has a resident population of stem cells which are capable of repairing and regenerating tissue. The stimulus to recruit these cells into quick action is movement. But combine activity with quality nutrition and good, restorative sleep and you’ve got a system for durable top-quality health and fitness.

Sometimes, while jogging along Dallas Road, I see a pale, overweight person driving an expensive convertible Porsche and smoking a cigarette, and it makes me think that our society places too much emphasis on money, material possessions and pleasure-seeking. Meanwhile we neglect what really counts—-our very bodies, our health; our source of life. I’d rather be poor, lean, spiritually-alive and out there loping along as opposed to money-rich and crapulous, and eventually falling victim to the returns of grotesque overindulgence. I make these observations having experienced both sides of life, believe me.

CK: The results indicate that there were lower rates in middle-distance runners at 51% of general population than long distance runners at 57%. Would you suggest that the six percent difference between the two was from variables in study results? If not which factors possibly influence the rate difference?

KK: I think the slight difference of 51% and 57% in cancer incidence between the middle and long distance runners in the Finnish study is really within experimental error. The basic principle here is that cancer, and most of the other chronic, age-related illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia and osteoarthritis are dramatically reduced with vigorous physical activity and the healthier lifestyle that tends to be associated with it. Of interest, for this cancer study the investigators in Finland wanted to include a broad range of sport disciplines that took into account endurance, speed, power and team sports, so they looked at athletes from track and field, skiing, soccer, hockey, basketball, boxing, wrestling, weightlifting and shooting, but it was the runners that seemed to have the lowest cancer rates. Being a runner myself, I personally think that the quality of being lean as well active, has quite a bit to do with it. Studies show that slightly underfed and thinner laboratory animals develop much fewer age-related chronic illnesses including cancer and have a significantly longer lifespan than their well-fed counterparts.

CK: What about recovery rates after getting cancer? For example Steve Scott, who was a world-class miler, had brain cancer, but after going through the usual recovery methods back in the late 1990s, is now over 20 years running strong, cancer free.

KK: Steve Scott remains one of my favorite milers of all time and it was thrilling to watch the epic battles between he and Cram, Coe and Ovett back in the day. I still watch some of the races on YouTube, just to get the blood pumping before a threshold workout at the track. But even though Steve Scott was in super-human shape, and ran 137 sub-four-minute miles in his long career, more than any other runner, he still got cancer—-twice. He was cured of an early stage testicular cancer about twenty years ago, and last October 2014 was diagnosed and successfully treated for localized prostate cancer. I believe that this is simply an instance of unfortunate luck on Steve Scott’s part, because he certainly did nothing to encourage the development of cancer. As a result of his excellent conditioning, he will have done much better in successfully tolerating the treatment and recovering than if he were in poor shape, in my experience. Fitness enhances the resilience of the immune system.

However this case highlights an important fact about cancer, which is that cancer is a natural consequence of living. The fossil record shows us that dinosaurs sometimes died of cancer, and excavation of ancient burial sites proves that prehistoric man often died of cancer. The fact is that cancer is always going to occur because it is a natural biological process. Our current problem is that on account of the modern lifestyle, we have far too much cancer, it comes at an earlier age in life, and it is more aggressive than what would have occurred in our ancestors. By living an active, healthy lifestyle, we tip the balance back towards our natural state, which is less chronic disease, including cancer.

There is one other thing that needs to be said and you won’t find it in any medical publication or textbook, but based on my experience as a runner and a physician, there is a spiritual aspect to fitness that confers a survival advantage—a kind of resilience, on the athlete. Recent advances in the relatively new science of epigenetics indicates that our body—our cells, take their signals from our beliefs, suggesting that ‘you are what you believe.’

CK: What do you feel the cost to society of all this chronic disease and cancer?

KK: I’ll answer that question with a question: did you know that looking after yourself—keeping fit and in action, is service work to your friends and family, and the general community at large? I never knew that. It never occurred to me, until I got sick….

When I was in high school, I remember our phys. ed. teacher Mr. Thachuk surprised me one morning by ordering me to the track to run one mile. I was one of those ‘stoner’ kids, a borderline student that was always skipping class, and he needed to assign a gym grade for me. I was so afraid of failing, that after he marked a line in the cinders, held up his up stopwatch, muttered the words: “four laps”, then blew his whistle, I took off like a shocked impala being chased across the savannah.

I knew very little about running, except that it felt like flying, and the first lap went by in an insensate 67 seconds. The half mile came at 2:23, then the three quarters at 3:44, by which time it felt like an elephant had jumped on my back. With 200 metres to go I was glassy-eyed and blubbering, but my brother, who had been watching from the sidelines, gave me new life by running wildly across the infield flapping his jacket and shouting, to indicate that a record was possible, just like Percy Cerutti did for Herb Elliott at the Rome Olympics. The final time was 4:59.0. Admittedly—slow, but nevertheless a new school record by nine seconds. Mr. Thachuk gave me a bright stare, then wordlessly marked down an “A” on his clipboard. After I had recovered from the horror and the exhaustion of it, I thought: “yeah, running—that’s what I want to do!” It seemed like a get-out-of-jail-free card in life. Those were the days of Rick Wohlhuter, Ivo Van damme, Filbert Bayi and John Walker.

CK: So what happened?

KK: What happens to most people in life—we get caught up in the struggle. And our childhood exuberance, the thrill of running, laughing and jumping becomes crushed, then expunged altogether by the pressure to survive and excel in a seemingly heartless and competitive world. The thrill to run became a distant memory to me as I worked for the house, the cars, the gadgets, the position and the power, forgetting what was really important—the living of life. But as the decades rolled by there was a tremendous cost, and the price tag was my health. I developed obesity, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, and began drinking too much. I had to have back surgery on slipped disks, twice. The doctors put me on pills for depression, anxiety and back pain, among other things. I painted myself into this corner until eventually the day came that they had to call the oxygen squad to come revive me. I spent a long time in hospital. So I understand the guy smoking the cigarette and driving the convertible Porsche, I tip my hat to them whenever they roll by on Dallas Road.

Statistics show that being overweight, even obese, with all of its attendant health problems like stroke, heart attack, diabetes and cancer has become epidemic among Canadians, even among our children. It almost seems like the corporate world supports this, for there is little money to be made in healthy people—all of the money seems to be generated in that grey area of poor health and chronic disease. It is estimated that in 2015, Canada will spend 219 billion dollars on health care—that’s over six thousand dollars per person, per year. So aside from the individual misery and human suffering, this is the cost to society—-hundreds of billions of dollars annually. When I got sick, everybody had to stop what they were doing to come and look after me. I was a drain on resources. When I started running again and lost weight and began shopping for and cooking my own food, boiling and filtering my water, it was no longer necessary to make trips to the hospital, or take pills of any kind, save for the odd aspirin. I was back up in action—out in the world with a spirit of generosity, and going for it, like that kid in high school.

The Finnish athletes, having so much less cancer and chronic disease later in life probably saved the health care system of Finland hundreds of millions of dollars. So that is why I ask: “did you know that looking after yourself is a public service?”

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