FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Cancer is Capitalist Violence

by BRIAN McKENNA

It’s been two decades since the publication of Martha Balsham’s landmark study, “Cancer in the Community: Class and Medical Authority (1993).” Balshem, a hospital-based anthropologist, documented how a Philadelphia “lay community” rejected medical advice to stop smoking, eat fruits and vegetables and schedule regular screening tests. The working class community of Tannerstown (a pseudonym) instead blamed air pollution from highway traffic and nearby chemical plants, as well as fate, for their cancers.

“Why did the dog get cancer?” a resident protested, “The dog didn’t smoke [or] eat an improper diet.”

Dr. Balshem was in a quandary. She was hired to promote the biomedical point of view in a project called “CAN-DO”. Her job was to go into the community around Fox Chase Cancer Hospital and convince the community to take self-responsibility for their cancers. The people would have none of it. They said the doctors were ignoring the elephant in the room.

Balshem didn’t know much about cancer when she began her work. But neither did her fellow anthropologists. When she presented at the AAA Meetings in 1986 about the health beliefs of Tannerstown citizens the audience “reacted by laughing” at their ignorance. And yet all those Tannerstown beliefs (e.g. there is cancer inside everybody, surgery can cause cancer to spread etc.) are essentially true.

After leaving the chains of her employment, Balshem wrote her book, juxta­posing the biomedical and the “lay community” views. She determined that both had rational bases for being labeled legiti­mate knowledge. Though an advance in knowledge, she failed to puncture the myth.

My father is from Tannerstown: I’m a “Natives’s Son

My father grew up in Philly’s River Wards. He died of cancer in 1986 (about the time of Balshem’s research). So I’m a “native’s son” in this story. I remember two things about that time. I remember biking through the Tannerstown and holding my nose at the noxious fumes, wondering, “How do people live in this god-awful place? Why doesn’t somebody do something?” And I remember desperately trying to save his life, trying everything from Linus Pauling’s Vitamin C cure to massive carrot juicing. Dad said it was too late for all that and settled for a fruit salad each day after chemo at a silver lunch truck in front of Jefferson Hospital.

Dad moved away from the Tannerstown area as a young man and I don’t know exactly what caused his cancer. But today I’m a journalist/anthropologist, in part, because of that experience, and I want to know many more details than Balsham provides. Balshem did not name names and she omitted a torrent of crisp facts that might have delivered the solid counterpunch required. Why did she tell us the names of some places (like Fox Chase Cancer Hospital) but not others – like her study community? Was it Fishtown, Kensington, Port Richmond, or Bridesburg (they are the four River ward communities)? And why didn’t she name any of the local factories, like Atlantic Metals, Honeywell and Rhome and Haas? There was Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data available then. For example, she could have checked and cited that, in 1988, for Rhome and Haas, there were 419,059 pounds of air releases from that factory, much of it carcinogenic.

Fox Chase is still guarding the Henhouse (of Knowledge)

Of course, maybe a thorough study would have had little effect. I searched the Fox Chase website and did not find even one reference to environmental etiologies to cancer in the River Wards around the hospital. Officially, they don’t exist. There is plenty of space dedicated to new screening technologies and tumor analysis. In fact, Fox released a thick Community Needs Assessment” report, in April 2013, that concluded the same advice that Balsham fought against, and I quote. “Three quarters of adults in the service area do not eat the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables, and one in six eats fast food twice a week or more often. In Addition, nearly half of adults do not exercise three times per week—and one in ten does not exercise at all. This may represent a need for education and programming” (PHMC 2013:41).

Programming?!

There is no change in message from 1993.

Fortunately today there are some environmental groups active in the “Tannerstown” area. One is the Port RichmondAIR whose mission is “understanding air quality in Philadelphia Riverwards neighborhoods; Port Richmond, Bridesburg, and Kensington.” They are active in the research, advocacy, and citizen science arenas. In the summer 2012 they worked with the Clean Air Council and Port Richmond residents as well academic partners at Drexel University “to collect data on the concentration of black carbon in the neighborhood. . . . [we] climbed up 12 ft. ladders in the dead heat of Philadelphia Summer, we put up monitors on homes, businesses, schools, and parks around Port Richmond and collected air quality data for four weeks.” A link to their website is below.

The Radical Cancer Toolbox in 2013

Balsham did not have today’s tool box of literature, data and theory at her disposal.  Moreover, she was wedded to a hospital employer which dramatically limited her critical scope.

In 2003 I was Executive Director of a non-profit, LocalMotion (“Better health through Fewer Toxins”), in Ann Arbor and organized a conference with three of the most important cancer and environmental researchers of the day: Devra Davis, Sandra Steingraber and Ruth Etzel, MD. They haven’t stopped. Steingraber made a movie, in 2010, based on her bestselling book, “Living Downstream” (See references). In 2012 Etzel, completed the third edition of “The Handbook of Pediatric Environmental Health,” published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (Etzel 2012). It is a groundbreaking clinical guide that offers “concise summaries of the evidence that has been published in the scientific literature about environmental hazards to children, and provide guidance to pediatricians about how to diagnose, treat, and prevent childhood diseases linked to environmental exposures.”

Devra Davis’s 2007 book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer details how corporate suppression, government inaction and social amnesia have combined to cause an epidemic. Ten million cancers over the last thirty years were entirely preventable argues Davis. Her 2011 book is Disconnect The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Is Doing to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family. She shows how cell phones are implicated in brain cancer in some studies and are the subject of warnings in Great Britain and Germany, but not the U.S. Children are especially at risk.

“The War on Cancer has been stymied because we focused only on attacking the disease while ignoring what causes it,” said Davis in an interview. John McMurty names it. His newly revised Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure (April, 2013) argues that, “The connection between dominant products and processes of capitalism and the non-communicable diseases and deaths they cause in still rising global incidence has been suppressed over many decades – including by independent critical science (McMurty 2013:38)”

Unfortunately, many famous anthropologists are not making these connections. An example is he late Cecil Helman. His widely influential textbook, Culture, Health and Illness (2007), published in over 40 countries, discusses cancer and environmental health in a non-critical fashion. Helman talks about the impact of diet on cancer, recommending particular changes (such as to eat more fruit) rather than exploring cancer from a structural perspective. At one point Helman discusses environmental pollution as being associated with “lay theories of illness causation.”

Actually the advice to eat more fruits and vegetables is important but only tells a small part of the story. There is a wealth of evidence that a whole foods, plant based diet, with no dairy and no oil can help prevent most forms of cancer, heart disease and stroke, among other degenerative diseases. The film “Forks over Knives” (2011) details a mountain of evidence – epidemiological, biochemical and animal studies – by a pair of pioneering researchers, Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, MD, that makes this point. They argue that it’s vital for your health to go vegan (entirely if you can) and eliminate all dairy (milk, yogurt, butter etc.) and all oil (yes that includes olive oil) from your diet. Organic is preferable, though that is more expensive. Nutritional research on anti-cancer supplements is growing and includes items like pomegranate juice and garlic capsules.

The terror of neoliberalism creates a besieged working class. Reliable knowledge about how food is medicine is hard to find. Capitalist culture saturates “Tannerstowns” across the country with diets of cheap meat, processed carbohydrates, cow’s milk, cheese, alcohol and simple sugars. Salads, when available, are a few strips of lettuce drenched with oil. The “Forks over Knives” diet will not save the working class, nor the middle class for that matter. It helps, but eliminating capitalism is the key to better health. A growing literature on the “health/wealth dialectic – how morbidity and mortality are closely associated with your place in the class-based hierarchy – is showing how the deepest part of ourselves are imprinted by capital. The film “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making us Sick?” (Adelman and Smith 2008) tells important parts of this story (see below for URL on film and transcripts from the seven part series at Adelman and Smith).

Cancer, like heart disease and stroke, are forms of neoliberal violence against us. They are not natural. Neither are the cures which require massive intervention. As Peter Montague, former editor of Rachel’s Health Environmental Monthly said, “to be blunt about it, there is no money in prevention, and once you’ve got cancer you’ll pay anything to try to stay alive” (Montague 2005).

Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at mckenna193@aol.com

 

References

Adelman, Larry and Llewellyn Smith (2008) Unnatural Causes. http://www.unnaturalcauses.org/transcripts.php

Balshem, Martha (1993) Cancer in the Community: Class and Medical Authority”  Washington, DC:Smithsonian Institute Press.

Davis, Devra (2009) The Secret History of the War on Cancer. New York:Basic.

Davis, Devra (2011) Disconnect The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Is Doing to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family. New York:Dutton. See a short film on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xtd-y2C9lH4

Etzel, Ruth (2012) Handbook of Pediatric Environmental Health, Elk Grove Village, American Academy of Pediatrics. http://ebooks.aap.org/product/pediatric-environmental-health-3rd-edition

Helman, Cecil (2007) Culture, Health and Illness.Oxford:Oxford university Press.

McKenna, Brian (2008) “Melanoma Whitewash: Millions at Risk of injury or Death because of Sunscreen Deceptions.” In Merrill Singer and Hans Baer (Eds.), Killer Commodities: A Critical Anthropological Examination of the Corporate Production of Harm. Lanham, MD:AltaMira Press.

McMurty, John (2013)The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure. Halifax & Winnipeg:Pluto.

Montague, Peter (2005) “Why We Can’t Prevent Cancer” Counterpunch, November 4-6.

Phildelphia Health Management Corporation (2013) The Hospital of the Fox Chase Cancer Center, Community Health Needs Assessment. Philadelphia:PHMC.

Port RichmondAIR (2013) http://portrichmondair.org/

Steingraber, Sandra (1998) Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment . Vintage. Order the 2010 film at: http://www.livingdownstream.com/

 

Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at mckenna193@aol.com

More articles by:
May 25, 2016
Eric Draitser
Obama in Hiroshima: A Case Study in Hypocrisy
Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
Does Venezuela’s Crisis Prove Socialism Doesn’t Work?
Dan Arel
The Socialist Revolution Beyond Sanders and the Democratic Party
Marc Estrin
Cocky-Doody Politics and World Affairs
Sam Husseini
Layers of Islamophobia: Do Liberals Care That Hillary Returned “Muslim Money”?
Susan Babbitt
Invisible in Life, Invisible in Death: How Information Becomes Useless
Mel Gurtov
Hillary’s Cowgirl Diplomacy?
Kathy Kelly
Hammering for Peace
Dick Reavis
The Impeachment of Donald Trump
Wahid Azal
Behind the Politics of a Current Brouhaha in Iran: an Ex-President Ayatollah’s Daughter and the Baha’is
Jesse Jackson
Obama Must Recommit to Eliminating Nuclear Arms
Colin Todhunter
From the Green Revolution to GMOs: Living in the Shadow of Global Agribusiness
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey as Terror: the Role of Ankara in the Brexit Referendum
Dave Lindorff
72-Year-Old Fringe Left Candidate Wins Presidency in Austrian Run-Off Election
May 24, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
The Financial Invasion of Greece
Jonathan Cook
Religious Zealots Ready for Takeover of Israeli Army
Ted Rall
Why I Am #NeverHillary
Mari Jo Buhle – Paul Buhle
Television Meets History
Robert Hunziker
Troika Heat-Seeking Missile Destroys Greece
Judy Gumbo
May Day Road Trip: 1968 – 2016
Colin Todhunter
Cheerleader for US Aggression, Pushing the World to the Nuclear Brink
Jeremy Brecher
This is What Insurgency Looks Like
Jonathan Latham
Unsafe at Any Dose: Chemical Safety Failures from DDT to Glyphosate to BPA
Binoy Kampmark
Suing Russia: Litigating over MH17
Dave Lindorff
Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Matt Peppe
Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of “Abusive” Lending Practices
Gilbert Mercier
If Bernie Sanders Is Real, He Will Run as an Independent
Peter Bohmer
A Year Later! The Struggle for Justice Continues!
Dave Welsh
Police Chief Fired in Victory for the Frisco 500
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail