For those of us who love our processed meats (hot dog anyone?) the thought that they could possibly give us cancer is terrifying. This is what one reporter for the BBC believes may have happened to him. In an interview with the Sunday Times, newsreader George Alagiah said his fondness for processed meats, including smoked ham and sausage, “is possibly why I got bowel cancer in the first place.”
Alagiah was first diagnosed with colorectal cancer—known in the U.K. as bowel cancer—in April 2014. After a brief remission, he revealed in December 2017 that the disease had returned. Alagiah returned to his news post in January 2019 but by March, he was under quarantine and later tested positive for COVID-19.
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“We’ve confronted those kinds of difficult, dark moments in our life and, in some ways, I think that we — those of living with cancer — are stronger because we kind of know what it is like to go into something where the outcomes are uncertain.”
“Chorizo and Smoked Ham”
“The cancer has been more active this year,” he told the Sunday Times. “Originally I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, then it went to my liver. I had most of my liver removed [in 2014], but it was confirmed in March that it’s gone to my lungs. I’m now on grown-up chemo: four drugs instead of two. During those sh*t weeks, I am totally wiped out.”
He rides a stationary bike and lifts weights each morning, saying that “staying fit helps me deal with the chemo.” But gives his wife credit for his healthier diet.
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“Fran has been trying to control my diet since the first diagnosis, and breakfast is porridge or muesli with lots of fruit and nuts,” he added.
“Left to my own devices it would be chorizo and smoked ham,” Alagiah said, “which is possibly why I got bowel cancer in the first place.”
Should Hot Dogs Carry A Warning Label?
In March, hot dogs, bacon, and deli meat came under fire by a group of California physicians who cited their health risks.
“Consuming 50 grams of processed meat—about the size of one hot dog—per day increases the risk for colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, death from heart disease, and diabetes by 18, 19, 24, and 32 percent, respectively,” the complaint filed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine stated.
The 25,000-member group insists there is “no safe amount” of processed meat and argues that, by failing to list processed meat as a health risk, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has failed to follow California law.
In 2015, hot dogs, bacon, and processed deli meats were classified as “carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer according to a statement from the committee.
Processed Meat and Colon Cancer Risk
Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
“I think part of the problem is how we process the meat,” says Dr. Stephen Freeland, Director of the Center for Integrated Research in Cancer and Lifestyle at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
“We know red meat, processed meat puts you at risk,” says Dr. Heather Yeo, colorectal surgeon and surgical oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian. “In countries where they eat a lot of processed foods, like in Japan where they eat a lot of cured meats, there is high incidence of gastrointestinal cancers.”
Processed meat includes hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, and some deli meats, according to the American Cancer Society. It refers to meat that has been treated in some way to preserve or flavor it. Processes include salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking. Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb, and goat.
To put the numbers in perspective, 50 grams of processed meat is the equivalent of one hot dog or about four strips of bacon. Overall, the lifetime risk of someone developing colon cancer is 5 percent. By regularly eating 50 grams of processed meat a day, a person would raise their average lifetime risk to almost 6 percent.
Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, American Cancer Society managing director of nutrition and physical activity, says, “We should be limiting red and processed meat to help reduce colon cancer risk, and possibly, the risk of other cancers. The occasional hot dog or hamburger is okay.”