Life Extension Magazine®

Issue: May 2010

Dr. Keith Black

Dr. Keith Black, author of Brain Surgeon: A Doctor’s Inspiring Encounters with Mortality and Miracles, discusses brain cancer’s causes and offers strategies for its prevention.

Scientifically reviewed by: Dr. Gary Gonzalez, MD, on January 2021.

Dr. Keith Black

According to Dr. Keith Black, Al Qaeda are not the only terrorists we need to be on the alert for. Black, a neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, likens a brain tumor to a guerrilla fighter—attacking stealthily on several simultaneous fronts.

“It acts more like a terrorist organization than a biological adversary,” writes Black in his recent book, Brain Surgeon: A Doctor’s Inspiring Encounters with Mortality and Miracles (Wellness Central, 2009). A brain tumor is “constantly changing and constantly shifting its guerrilla strategies,” Black explains. “In response, we constantly adjust our own attacks, striving to outsmart the tumor, pushing back the survival frontier, winning for the patient whatever time we can.”

It’s a perpetual battle in a larger, more insidious war. Point of fact, brain tumors are on the rise, and each year more than 200,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with brain cancer. In an especially worrying trend, brain tumors are currently the leading cause of solid tumor cancer death in children and young adults under the age of 20. The survival rate for those with a malignant tumor is a scant 32%.

Black, who has appeared on the cover of Time magazine as one of America’s Heroes of Medicine, serves as chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and Director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute at Cedars-Sinai. He is foremost among a group of approximately 3,000 neurosurgeons at work in the US today. Unfortunately, only 50 of them specialize in brain tumors, which means Black typically undertakes a heavy schedule of more than 250 surgeries a year.

Chemical Culprits

Based on his observations and long experience with his own patients, Black believes a primary reason for the sharp increase in brain tumors can be found in our environment. “It’s very well known that the risk of onset and development of cancer is a combination of one’s genetics—the natural ability of one’s body to neutralize toxins in the environment—offset by the quantity of exposure to those toxins,” he explains. “A classic example is the guy who lives to 105 while smoking two packs of cigarettes and drinking every day.” Black says this man’s genetics have allowed him to detoxify the damage from smoke and alcohol, and still remain healthy. “On the flip side, you can have a patient who has had much less environmental exposure to toxins, and still gets cancer.”

Chemical Culprits

Over the past decade, Black and his colleagues examined a number of such relationships and their correlations with occupational risks. In at least one area, their conclusions match the statistics: regardless of any predisposed genetic “protections,” people who work in plastics factories have a much higher incidence of brain cancer because of exposure to vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen used in manufacturing products such as pipes, wire coatings, car parts, and house wares. Manufacturing plants release vinyl chloride into the air or water, but it can also leak into the environment after improper disposal. People who work in these plants or live in close proximity are known to have an increased risk for brain cancer.

Textiles workers are also at risk because they may be exposed to acrylonitrile, which is used in the production of synthetic rubber and acrylic fibers. When burned during production, the material releases fumes of hydrogen cyanide and other chemicals. The Department of Health and Human Services recently determined that acrylonitrile may be a risk factor for cancer.

Of course, not everyone works in or lives near a plastics plant. Black believes the evidence is equally strong behind a number of other suspected environmental factors. “Studies have looked at people who live close to golf courses, and their increased brain cancer risk due to the nitrates in pesticides,” he says.

Toxic waste dumps have also been implicated, as well as power lines. “There are definite correlations, particularly in neighborhoods near large transformers. You tend to see clusters of cancer in these communities.”

Eating Hazards

Consumption of foods high in nitrates and other preservatives can play a role in causing brain tumors as well. Preserved meats like hot dogs, bacon, and cured ham fall under this category. Nitrates were originally used to help prevent the growth of bacteria that cause botulism and other food-borne illnesses. These nitrates would break down, forming nitrites. Eventually, nitrites themselves were added directly to the meat to speed up the curing process. Nitrites continue to be used in cooked meats to maintain the traditional pink color and cured flavor.

Nitrites contribute to the formation of potentially dangerous carcinogens in the body which can result in malignant tumor growth. As far back as 1995, a citizen petition submitted to the FDA called for the government to “label hot dogs that contain nitrites with a cancer risk warning.” The petition was based on “accumulating scientific information on excess risks of childhood brain tumors… from the consumption of hot dogs containing nitrite preservatives.”

And it’s not just the foods themselves. Black is equally concerned about people who microwave their food in plastic wrap. “That’s extremely worrisome, because the plastic can go right into the food,” he warns. Here again, the primary culprit is vinyl chloride—which, after being microwaved, breaks down and enters food directly.

Editor’s comments: If you do consume foods containing preservatives such as nitrate or nitrite, taking several grams of vitamin C, about 100 mg of chlorophyllin, and/or cruciferous vegetable extracts might help neutralize the carcinogenic potential of these foods.

Bad Air

People can avoid or reduce nitrate intake by monitoring their diet, but it’s not quite that simple when it comes to reducing exposure to air pollution. “We are specifically suspicious of air particulate matter, nanoparticles in air pollution that can cross directly into the brain and cause tumors,” says Black, adding that firemen, for example, have a proven increased risk of brain cancer from breathing fire engine diesel fumes in the station.

For commuters, Black says the risk is equally great. “We speculated that nanoparticles in automobile exhaust have a causal relationship with brain tumors. In the lab, we then found that even the brain cells of laboratory mice undergo a transition to suggest preconditions to converting to cancer when subjected to the type of air found on and around freeways—after just a few short months of exposure.”

“... children and teens are more at risk from a cell phone’s microwave radiation.”

In his book, Black describes firsthand experience with one of his own cancer patients battling a tumor likely caused by air pollution. That patient spent his childhood and young adult life in the 1960s in Riverside, California, 50 miles inland from Los Angeles. Prevailing winds blew all of LA’s exhaust fumes and airborne waste toward Riverside, which at the time had some of the worst air quality in the country. “His description made me cringe,” says Black, “but it was only one of many contributing factors in his history.” As this patient’s generation grows older, Black feels we will see rising cancer rates in people exposed to the same high levels of toxins in their earlier years.

Cell Damage

Cell Damage

Cell phone use is a more high-tech threat that has been implicated in causing brain tumors for the past decade. “Studies from Switzerland and Sweden show a clear correlation between use of cell phones and brain cancer,” says Black, who points to one study showing that people exposed to over 2,000 hours of cell phone use—about an hour a day over ten years—have increased tumor risk of 250% from microwave radiation. “With cell phones, however, you have articles published on both sides,” he counters. “Other studies don’t support these claims.”

Given the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, why isn’t this better publicized? Black explains the problem is one of time—or lack thereof: cell phones have only been around for a decade. “Cancer typically takes 20-30 years between exposure to an environmental toxin and development of a tumor. In other areas this is well correlated: we know for a fact that if you start smoking cigarettes in your teens, we don’t expect to find lung cancer when you’re 25. We expect to find it when you’re 45 or 55.”

Black says children and teens are more at risk from a cell phone’s microwave radiation. “Their skulls are thinner, and the radiation penetrates deeper and has higher impact because the brain is in a much more dynamic state, with nerve cells dividing much faster than an adult’s.” Indeed, Black points out that in laboratory models the most effective way to induce brain cancer is to expose a pregnant rat to an environmental toxin. “The mother doesn’t get cancer, but the embryo does.”

We haven’t had enough time yet for a definitive 20-30 year study of people’s cell phone habits. “What will those studies ultimately show when kids who have been using cell phones begin to get evaluated?” Black wonders. “The evidence we have now paints a very worrying picture.”

A Constant Battle

Again, Black experienced this firsthand with the death of his close friend Johnny Cochrane, who was O.J. Simpson’s attorney. Black believes that Cochrane’s brain cancer, a malignant glioma—what he calls “the Osama bin Laden of tumor terrorists”—was the result of frequent cell phone use, based on the fact that the tumor developed on the side of the head against which Cochrane held his phone. Interviewed in May, 2008 on Larry King Live, Black summed up opinions on both sides of the fence: “I think if we look at the evidence that we have now, it’s difficult to say that cell phones have a direct link to brain cancer, but it’s also difficult to say that they’re safe.” His ultimate advice is to be informed. “If you elect to use a cell phone, precautions like earpieces are not unwise,” he urges.

Editor’s comments: All electronic devices emit dangerous electromagnetic fields (EMFs). If anyone questions this, just buy a Gauss meter and see how high the needle jumps (indicating greater EMF activity) when you are close to any electronic device. Be it a cell phone or a land line phone, distance is the key to avoiding EMF exposure. Just use the speaker phone option on your cell phone and land line, keep the phone about 12 inches from your head, and you will not suffer high EMF exposure.

A Constant Battle

At first, it would seem impossible to win a war against an enemy that fights on so many different fronts, but there is evidence that the tide is turning. “We are actually making advances in our ability to treat brain cancer,” Black says. One of the more promising recent studies at Cedars-Sinai involves enlisting our own immune system. “There is a theory that we are developing cancer all the time, but if our immune system is able to recognize that cancer, it can eradicate it. We’re currently working on a therapeutic vaccine, and have shown in clinical trials that we can teach the immune system to fight cancer.” Made with a key component of our immune system called dendritic cells, the vaccine “reveals” bad proteins to the body’s killer T-cells. White blood cells then attack the cancer once they’re given the “scent.”

Nutrition is another powerful ally. “The mechanism of cancer is consistent among different types of tumors, so antioxidants seem to be beneficial in brain cancer as well,” says Black. “If you have a strong healthy immune system, you’re probably more resistant to developing cancer in the first place. Supplements that boost the immune system are beneficial. Also, if you eat foods free of preservatives or nitrates, your body has to expend less energy detoxifying those agents. Try to eat a lot of fruit, vegetables, and fresh organic foods without added hormones.”

In addition to this, Black himself incorporates omega-3 fish oil and a general multivitamin.

He also meditates and exercises regularly to reduce stress. It’s a multi-pronged approach. “But remember, cancer acts like a terrorist,” he points out. “You have to fight it on multiple fronts.”

To contact Dr. Keith Black, visit

Avoiding Brain Tumors

Brain tumors are on the rise. As with any cancer, you can take steps to reduce your risk. The first step is to understand what those risks are and how they apply to you.

Environmental factors can play a large part in determining your cancer risk. Living in a community with poor air quality, living near a toxic waste dump or living near power lines and transformers have been known to increase risk.

Be proactive! Commit to quitting smoking and exercising more. “Eat a lot of fruit, vegetables and fresh organic foods without added hormones,” advises Black. “Antioxidants and supplements that boost the immune system are beneficial.”

Restrict the amount of food toxins (e.g., nitrates, preservatives) that you put into your body.

Use earpieces or hands-free kits for cell phones, avoid plastic wrap on food (particularly when microwaving), and limit use of pesticides, particularly around small children.

Lastly, stay on top of the latest medical developments: the more you know, the better prepared you will be if you develop brain cancer.