Local favorite Spam draws health scrutiny as processed meats are linked to cancer

Mar. 27—Spam, the canned luncheon meat, has been a staple and part of local culture and history in Hawaii for decades.

Spam, the canned luncheon meat, has been a staple and part of local culture and history in Hawaii for decades.

Spam consumption, however, is not ideal for health, according to a Washington, D.C., public health advocacy group, because of a link between processed meats and cancer. The group and some doctors want to emphasize the importance of a healthy diet as well as early screening during National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in February drafted a letter to The Queen's Medical Center of the Waikiki Spam Jam Festival set for April 29.

It turns out that Queen's is not a sponsor of this year's festival, according to a spokesperson, and that was inferred in error when the center's logo was mistakenly posted to the website. It has since been removed.

The event does not align with Queen's goals, the spokesperson said.

"The main concern is we know that processed meats and red meats cause cancer, " said Dr. Grace O'Neil, a local emergency room physician and member of PCRM. "A health system, especially, should be promoting health and not promoting sickness."

In the emergency room, O'Neil said, she has seen some patients come in again and again with the same problems and on the same medications for high cholesterol and diabetes. That was what prompted her to seek board certification in lifestyle medicine, which she has seen transform lives.

"I wanted to make a difference with my patients, " she said. "I do a lot of counseling on changing diet and lifestyle to improve their health."

According to Hormel Foods, Spam was introduced to the isles while being served to soldiers during World War II and then became part of local culture and cuisine.

The Waikiki Spam Jam has been an annual celebration of the canned meat, a block party with people dressed as Spam musubi, live entertainment and restaurants showcasing Spam in their dishes.

Some funds raised by the festival go to nonprofits in the community, such as the Hawaii Foodbank.

The festival website says more Spam is consumed per person in Hawaii than in any other state : nearly 7 million cans statewide every year.

O'Neil would rather see sponsorship of a "Veg-Fest " to encourage eating healthy fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants to prevent cancer.

"I think before Spam started to come here, people were probably much healthier, including the Native Hawaiian population that has a high rate of diabetes, " said O'Neil. "It's very high in fat, too. So there's increased rate of heart disease."

Warning signs Colorectal cancer, or colon cancer, is the second-­leading cancer killer in Hawaii, according to the state Department of Health, resulting in about 700 diagnoses among both men and women, and 225 deaths in the state each year.

The department in 2022 launched a campaign, urging all adults age 45 to 75 to get screened for colon cancer.

Screening tests can detect colon cancer at an early stage when treatment works best, the department said, and can also find precancerous polyps, or abnormal growths in the colon or rectum that can be removed before they turn into cancer.

Today there are various screening options besides the colonoscopy, including stool tests, flexible sigmoidoscopy and computed tomography colonography.

"Colon cancer is an interesting cancer, " said Dr. Rebecca Sawai, a colorectal surgeon at Kaiser Permanente. "Usually, it's a slow-growing, slow-changing cancer for many people. Because of that, it can be present for a while without giving anybody symptoms. That's why screening is so important."

If caught early enough, however, the cancer can be removed, and often the patient can undergo treatment without chemotherapy or radiation.

"It's often very treatable, " she said.

The stool tests can be more cost-effective than a colonoscopy for those age 45 and older seeking an alternative, she said. However, screening with colonoscopy is important for those who have had family members with colon cancer or colon polyps.

Some symptoms to watch out for include changing bowel habits, rectal bleeding or abdominal pain that does not go away.

"By and large, most of my patients don't have any symptoms at all, and it comes down to screening or colonoscopy, " she said.

Kevin Uperesa, a former colon cancer patient, is grateful to have caught it in time.

Uperesa, 64, said he was diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer in 2017 after experiencing severe pain in his lower abdomen.

At the time, he worked in security, and the pain on the job that day was enough to send him to an emergency room. He admits that at the time, he did not see a doctor for regular checkups or screenings, feeling that he knew his own body best.

He underwent surgery and has followed up on colonoscopies, and is happy to say he has remained clear of the cancer.

Today he is urging his grown sons to get regular doctor checkups and screening. He has also changed his lifestyle, by quitting smoking and sticking with a low-sodium diet.

Maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce one's risk of cancer, said Sawai, and a lot of processed meats are unhealthy for a variety of reasons, including a high amount of salt and fat, and should be considered rare, occasional treats.

In its letter to Queen's, the Physicians Committee cited a from The Lancet Oncology, which found, after examining some 800 studies on the link between processed meats and cancer, that for every 50 grams consumed per day, cancer risk increased by 18 %.

The World Health Organization, it noted, has classified processed meat as a WHO said include hot dogs, sausages, corned beef and canned meat, and that the classification is "based on sufficient evidence from epidemiological studies that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer."

COLON CANCER SCREENING—Who should get screened : Adults age 45-75—Those older than 75 could still choose to get screened but should talk to their doctor for guidance.—Colon cancer is the second-leading cancer killer in Hawaii, affecting both men and women.—Various are available.—Visit to learn more.

Source : State Department of Health