When Bathurst doctor Carole Hungerford graduated in the late 1960s, breast cancer was late-life disease diagnosed in about one in fifteen women.
“Now the surgeons are saying it’s one in eight, perhaps one in seven,” Dr Hungerford said.
“And a lot of it is the young person’s cancer, the aggressive one.
“We didn’t even look for it 40 years ago.”
What’s happened? According to the author of Good Health in the 21st Century, we’ve stuffed up.
“Nature didn’t stuff up, we stuffed up. Modern humans have been on the planet for 200,000 years, and in the last few decades have we thrown out a lot of challenges to the body,” she said.
“We’ve started putting chlorine in the drinking water, sulfates in the wine, additives in the food … people don’t know where they are getting their headache from because they are reacting to everything.”
At the same time, Dr Hungerford says, people are getting less nutrient from their food.
“Some of us are eating good food grown in bad soils, or good food that is not fresh. More of us are eating bad food that is neither fresh nor grown in good soils.”
For many people, the result is an immune system compromised on one hand by lack of resources to do its job, and on the other by a raft of environmental challenges that the human body has never before encountered.
According to Dr Hungerford, a host of modern diseases have their roots in this situation: cancer, arthritis, asthma, autism, Alzheimers, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease, to name a few.
Teasing out what is behind these diseases, which are swallowing the health budgets of Western nations whole, has been a long obsession for Dr Hungerford.
It culminated in her 2006 book—among other things, a short course in human biochemistry—which swelled the waiting list at her practices in Bathurst and Balmain out to three months and more.
Health is complicated, something that changes from individual to individual, but after years of research and medical practice, Dr Hungerford has come to believe health starts in the soil.
“I think if we were all eating organic foods growing in pristine volcanic soils, and we didn’t process that food—so if we ate rice we ate brown rice, and if we ate wheat we ate whole wheat—I think we’d conservatively slash our health budget by 70 per cent,” she said.
This may be a logistical impossibility, particularly in Australia and its old, depeleted soils, but Dr Hungerford feels that farming practices, and food processing, need to develop practices that better acknowledge the vital health component of food.
In the meantime, she believes that “most, if not all of us” needs to supplement their diet with key minerals like zinc, selenium, calcium and magnesium.
That’s not a common view in the medical profession, which Dr Hungerford believes is one of the reasons that health services everywhere are foundering against a tide of ill-health.
In focusing on “the disease model” and the science of curing disease, Western medicine and related policy has neglected the science of prevention.
“In America, one per cent of the cancer research budget goes into prevention; 99pc goes into other areas—early detection, and looking for the magic bullet. Or it goes into support groups,” she said.
“That’s all supported by the medical profession. We cure disease. Where’s the excitement in prevention?
“Even Medicare isn’t funded for prevention. If you come and see me and say, ‘Look, I feel terrific, and I want to stay that way, can you advise me how to do that?’—that’s not covered under Medicare.”
In her book, she eloquently argues that prevention of disease begins with soils capable of growing nutrient-dense food; with food supply chains that nuture that nutrient through to consumers; with consumers willing to eat a balanced, healthy diet; and with a general willingness to stop fouling the environment with toxins that are making many of us sick.
“I think it’s an idea whose time has come,” Dr Hungerford says.
“Once your mother and your sister and your best friend’s wife have all got breast cancer, young, you start to think what’s happening—what’s gone wrong?”
In her experience, a lot has gone wrong, and is still doing so.
Signs that this is the case recur every time she does an interview: afterwards, the desk staff at her medical practises deal with a barrage of phone calls, explaining to desperate people that her waiting list already stretches months ahead.
“I don’t need any more patients, but it’s a message that needs to be told,” Dr Hungerford says.