Last month a close friend of mine, a man in his late 40s, got cancer. It was of the colon. He now confronts an uncertain future but his prognosis is good. He’s an unrelenting fighter so my bet is that he’ll join me in the cancer survivor’s club. Mine was melanoma, back in 1992.
These days whenever I think of cancer I think of another cancer fighter, a cultural warrior named Devra Davis. Her new book, “The Secret History of the War on Cancer” is a disturbing, beautifully rendered work that details how corporate suppression, government inaction and social amnesia have combined to cause an epidemic that makes a mockery of President Nixon’s War on Cancer in 1971.
Ten million cancers over the last thirty years were entirely preventable argues Davis.
Secret History was twenty years in the making. In 1986 Davis was offered a hefty advance to write a book on all that was then known about cancer prevention. When she informed her boss at the National Academy of Sciences, an arm of the federal government, about the offer he told her that she would lose her job if she wrote it. Davis, now 61, is Director of Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh. With more than 170 peer reviewed publications, an extensive career as a Presidential appointed governmental researcher, and a National Book Award bronze medal under her belt (for When Smoke Ran Like Water in 2002) anything Davis writes on cancer commands widespread attention.
Consider her assessment of aspartame. An artificial sweetener now widely used in cookies, cakes and candies around the world, aspartame was judged to be unsafe by the FDA in the 1970s after widespread testing. It was suspected of being a possible cancer causer. In 1977 the FDA formally asked the US attorney general to indict Searle corporation, aspartame’s major producer, for knowingly making false and misleading statements about aspartame’s safety. Searle responded by hiring a top Washington official, formerly with the Defense Department, to be its chief Executive officer. Aspartame was defeated in 1980 when the FDA review board voted unanimously against its approval. Then, in 1981, after Ronald Reagan’s election, Searle reapplied for approval, and its CEO “called in my marks” at the FDA. Within a year aspartame was approved for all liquids and vitamins. The name of the CEO? Donald Rumsfeld.
It sometimes seems that the entire Bush team cut its eyeteeth on undermining cancer prevention efforts. It is true for my cancer. It is not well known that sunscreen is a cause of melanoma since it generally does not protect well against UVA rays. People sopping on the gook or sprays have a false sense of security in the sun. But the FDA has not changed sunscreen labels to alert consumers of this fact. In contrast, the European Union, in 2006, did so, arguing that claims like “sunblockers” and “total protection” do not exist. Back in 1999 after the FDA began making motions to require truth in labeling, sunscreen manufacturers responded with an intensive lobbying effort via their trade group the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrance Association. As a result the FDA was persuaded not to implement the rules. Leading the lobbying charge was a former White House lawyer named John Roberts. Today he sits as the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Davis’s revelations come with relentless force. Pap smears, the life saving test for cervical cancer, were held up for more than a decade because of fears it would undermine the private practice of medicine.
Sir Richard Doll, of Oxford University, perhaps the most esteemed cancer epidemiologist in the world for decades, and one who discounted most environmental causes to cancer, was, in fact, secretly in the employ of chemical companies like Monsanto for years.
Many of the official leaders in the cancer war, like Armand Hammer, came from firms that produced cancer-causing substances. Throughout the 1980s the National Cancer Institute’s advisory board included Hammer, the CEO of Occidental Petroleum which produced more than 100 billion tons of toxic materials.
The “War on Cancer” is a war against science, broadly defined. When scientists reveal uncomfortable truths about cancer etiologies they often find their funding cut and reputations sullied. Other researchers get the message. Companies like Dow Chemical cut cancer funding in this way. When Marvin Legator pursued research on benzene’s affects on workers as part of a well-funded consultantship to Dow Chemical to conduct toxicology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, he was stunned to find severe chromosomal damage to workers. Dow cut his funding.
Davis pinpoints precisely how corporations have mastered the art of “doubt promotion,” gearing up their PR machines to cause citizens to question anything a critical scientist reports. It worked for tobacco for decades and still does. Moreover the epistemological (how we know what we know) basis about what gets regarded as “truth,” has been severely undermined. This means, for example, that corporations have succeeded in persuading powerful groups that animal studies are OK for determining the efficacy for highly profitable chemotherapy drugs but not for the (profit hurting) actual causes of cancer!
Corporations can cover-up knowledge about how their workers are becoming ill or dying under the rubric of trade secrets. Entire towns like Mossville, Louisiana are purchased in part so that cancer researchers cannot investigate health harms.
“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. In a nutshell, what causes it is the medical-military-industrial-academic complex obsessed with profits, hierarchical control and trade secrets. In a time of severely weakened public funding, universities are more often knowledge factories serving corporations than outspoken civic guardians. And corporations will often do whatever it takes to get risky products approved.
This story is being repeated again and again today. Cell phones, implicated in brain cancer in some studies, are the subject of warnings by Great Britain and Germany, but not the U.S. Children are especially at risk.
Shampoos containing a clear colorless liquid know as “1, 4-dioxane” causes cancer in animals and is banned from cosmetics by the European Union. The FDA is silent.
And few emergency room physicians are aware of the dangers of CT scans, which have increased tenfold in recent years. A CT scan of a child’s stomach is equivalent to about 600 chest x-rays, making them more vulnerable to cancer later in their lifetimes.
The Secret History of the War on Cancer is a multi-layered treasure trove of a shadow history leading from Hypocrates to Ramazinni to Nazi Germany, which ironically was the first country to ban smoking in public places. The Nazis were simply implementing the work of a spectacular 1936 conference in Brussels on the environmental causes of cancer. Yes, it turns out that a great deal was known environmental and workplace causes of cancer but ignored by most of the industrial world. In her investigations Davis was shocked to learn about this International Congress of Scientific and Social Campaign against Cancer, where 200 of the world’s top scientists convened. She calls it a “a veritable Manhattan Project on cancer.”
“Many of your late relatives and mine might still be with us if the things these eminent women and men of science knew about the causes of cancer in 1936 had entered mainstream medical practice,” writes Davis.
Cancer strikes terror into its victims and relief is sought at any cost. Existentially adrift and facing one’s mortality you search for meaning in an alienated world. Alas, there’s something that can be done! Doctors, nurses and social workers reassure you that someone cares. Whether it’s cancer of the colon, breast, prostrate, lung, skin or testes, there’s a multi-billion dollar armatarium of CT scans, chemotherapy and surgeries awaiting to relieve you. But rarely, if ever, does the medical establishment address the probable social and environmental causes of your disease. Teachable moments fade.
In essence this silent spring of medical speech serves to aid and abet the larger social forces that helped place you in their clinics in the first place! Besides, there’s little or no money in prevention.
Davis will have none of it.
Inspired by South Africa, Davis calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission movement in the United States to pressure corporations to release the great amount of information they have sequestered about worker’s health and cancer risks. Presently this data is off limits because of “trade secrets.”
Davis’ book signals the need for a revolution in medical education, public health and the social world at large. It is a rallying call. The book is capable of sending shock waves through the culture. With our help it can.
BRIAN McKENNA was a reader for Devra Davis’s book in its writing stages.