The war on understanding cancer

Deceit and greed the hallmarks of a century-long sham

by Geoff Olson

On a cold, grey day in December, I dropped into a North Shore hospice to visit a friend. As he reclined in a wheelchair in the common room, a violin quintet played holiday standards. I slid into a free chair between him and his father to take in the remainder of the performance. In a quiet voice, my sick friend began to sing along to Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.

My friend and neighbour was both a gentleman and a gentle man. A high school science teacher and father of two, he raised bees and drove an electric car quieter than a sewing machine. He didn’t smoke, drink to excess or even use a cell phone. He was all about healthy living, sustainability and helping out his neighbours. Thanks to him, my wife and I were able to grow our own vegetables after he built an extra garden plot for us in his backyard.

I have lost a disturbing number of friends and acquaintances in the past year and a half to cancer. Two had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, the most malignant form of brain tumour.

Cancer is not of recent vintage, as indicated by fossil evidence of a dinosaur that suffered from a bone tumour 150 million years ago. If you manage to survive other age-related ailments, there’s a good chance that some form of the disease will get you in the end; it is a predictable, if ironic, result of life extension.

Yet my neighbour was only 33 when he was diagnosed with cancer. Over the past 20 years, there has been a 22% increase in brain tumours in the US population, according to statistics from the National Cancer Institute. And here is the kicker: in the last 20 years, the incidence of brain tumours has reportedly increased by 35% in children younger than 15.

The Lancet predicts a global increase in overall cancer rates by more than 75% by 2030.

Devra Davis, PhD, was the founding director of the Center for Environmental Oncology, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and a professor of epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health (2004-2010). Her 2007 book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, traces a sickening, century-long pattern of public relations deceit, academic timidity and media collusion that has kneecapped scientific research and promoted public confusion about this disease.

Davis details how the “astonishing alliances” between academics and people with vested interests in selling potentially carcinogenic materials have kept the public in the dark about risks to their health.

An aging population does not explain why five times more adults get brain cancer in the US than Japan. It does not account for a 50% rise in testicular cancer in men under 40 in most industrialized nations, in the space of a decade. Nor does it explain why, as Davis writes, “…women of Generation X are getting twice as much breast cancer as their grandmothers did.”

The author’s own father died of multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. She observes that, between 1973 and 1983, the incidence of the disease doubled for men aged 55 to 59.

While our culture celebrates the incremental successes in treating or managing different forms of the disease, we shrink from asking difficult questions about cancer risks that don’t involve personal lifestyle choices.

In her book, Davis tells the tale of the long-forgotten 2nd Conference on Cancer, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1936. The author had seen citations for this event, but the actual papers from the conference seemed to have gone down an institutional memory hole. With the help of a reference librarian in Wyoming, she located and requested the transfer of a three-volume set archived in a library in Belgium.

“I thought I would learn how naive the world of cancer research had once been. But after the books arrived, I spent a sleepless night fascinated by the sophisticated drawings and advanced research techniques that were employed to unravel the causes of cancer before I was born,” she writes.

In the early years of the 20th century, researchers had tracked cancer risks by gender, age and occupation. They knew that radiation, tobacco, asbestos, pesticides, benzene and other chemicals were carcinogenic.

Ironically, many of these discoveries were made in Germany under the Nazi regime, which was bent on maximizing Aryan health even as it targeted European Jewry for ghettoes and death camps. “Men were advised to get their colons checked as often as they would check the engines of their cars,” noted historian Robert N. Proctor in his 2000 book, The Nazi War on Cancer. Dangerous chemical additives such as food dyes, pesticides and preservatives were restricted or banned. The Germans also invented the term “passive smoking” and tightly restricted tobacco advertising.

At the close of World War 2, Robert R. Kehoe, an army captain and spy working for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), ventured across Germany gathering information on chemical and hormonal hazards for the US Army Field Investigations Unit and the British Secret Service. “Sixty years later, these files remain unpublished,” Davis writes.

Postwar, global chemical and manufacturing industries would employ the same tactics of denial and deceit that US tobacco companies would use in the service of smoking. Scientists who pursued the truth were frequently dissuaded by subtle and not so subtle pressures, including the threat of research funding cuts. In some cases, entire lines of investigation were walled off and scientific careers derailed, as in the case of Wilhelm Hueper, a pathologist who investigated occupational tumours and became professionally radioactive after reporting the health risks of uranium mining.

Bizarrely, the Canadian federal government still allows the export of asbestos, a substance the Hitler regime understood to be a dangerous carcinogen. For over a century, a similar blindness has blessed the industrial use of benzene, a known leukemia vector for factory workers. In 1989, Myron Mehlman, a toxicologist with Exxon Mobil, told Japanese officials that gasoline with 5% benzene represented a significant health threat. The company fired him for his insubordination.

Today, the entire cancer awareness and treatment industrial complex is predicated on chasing elusive, post facto, pharmaceutical silver bullets. Preventative measures are mostly limited to advice from health care providers and media sources about lifestyle choices involving smoking, diet and exercise. God forbid that anyone opens the Pandora’s box of corporate responsibility for cancer’s rise.

This constriction of knowledge is not surprising, considering a number of leaders in the so-called war on cancer across Europe and North America have secretly worked for the chemical industry for years, consistently neglecting to disclose their ties when advising government on issues impacting their benefactors.

Throughout the 1980s, the National Cancer Institute’s advisory board was chaired by Armand Hammer, the CEO of Occidental Petroleum. His company “produced more than 100 billion tons of chemicals, including those that created the superfund toxic waste site at Love Canal and led to the contamination of lush Mississippi River delta towns in Calcasieu Parish,” notes Davis. “Similar conflicts continue today.”

The vast majority of the 100,000 chemicals used in industry and commerce have never been tested for health effects. Among those tested and suspected of being carcinogens, many circulate freely in the environment and into our bodies, unchecked and unregulated. Some of the makers of these substances own companies that produce pharmaceutical drugs used in the treatment of cancer.

Good examples of this boundless cynicism are found in the numerous walkathons and cycle rides for cancer, often sponsored by companies involved in the manufacture of products or services implicated in the disease. It’s the arsonists acting as the fire department.

This is not just about chemistry. “Modern America’s annual exposure to radiation from diagnostic machines is equal to that released by a nuclear accident that spewed the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshimas across much of Russia and Eastern Europe,” Davis claims.

According to figures from the Society for Pediatric Radiology, a typical CT scan can be the equivalent of 400 to 6,000 chest X-rays. The following was published in a 2013 article in Scientific American: “Researchers at the National Cancer Institute estimate that 29,000 future cancer cases could be attributed to the 72 million CT scans performed in the country in 2007.” The article noted that the extrapolation of radiation data drawn from Hiroshima victims to medical imaging patients is a subject of much scientific debate.

With cancer on the rise like a pathogen in a Michael Crichton novel, our mainstream press seems remarkably incurious. A recent CBC digital headline announced, “Two-thirds of cancers caused by bad luck, not genetics & environment.” The news item cites a report published in Science, which stated the majority of cancers arise from random mutations arising from cell division.

Intriguingly, “breast and prostate cancer were excluded because the researchers were unable to ascertain reliable stem cell division rates.” So two of the biggest killers of North American female and male populations, respectively, were left out of the study, with the links of environmental toxins to breast cancer left unaddressed.

The CBC story is likely to leave readers with the impression that cancer sprays the population indiscriminately like an escaped firehose. While it’s true scientists cannot always predict what combination of mutagens will affect which genes and how, they certainly detect patterns over time and isolate likely suspects in the material world, as in any other forensic investigation. It’s what epidemiologists often do.

“Sometimes cancer is due to a genetic susceptibility that we get from our fathers or mothers, but mostly it isn’t. We know that no matter how careful anyone is about their good and bad habits, where and when we are born and what we work and play with has a lot more to do with whether we get cancer than who our parents happen to be,” the author writes.

Why are we losing the war on cancer? It’s because our best and brightest have been institutionally blindfolded and gagged by moneyed interests for decades so the global population can be used as lab rats in an uncontrolled but very profitable health experiment.

As a single data point, my neighbour’s cancer has an unknown and unknowable origin, even as it’s added on to an increasingly bent distribution curve. But as one more victim of the disease, the 34-year-old leaves behind a wife, a two-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. May his two lovely children grow up in a world that awakens to the professionally curated ignorance about the “emperor of all maladies” – a world that finally comes to terms with the human sacrifices made to The Almighty Dollar.

In memory of Gordon Trousdell, Ralph Maud, Bryant Knox, and Brian Savage.

blindfold photo © Oleg Gekman

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