Cancer: Cause and Defects

Terry J. Allen

When Sarah Palin says stupid things, they have the virtue of sounding really dumb. Appropriate derision greeted her insistence that what caused global warming kind of doesn’t matter at this point … we need to do something about it.”

But when the cancer research establishment pours billions into treatment while ignoring causes, it cuts off hope of preventing an affliction that will visit half of U.S. men and more than a third of women.

Hope for current and future victims centers around a new wave of genetics-based research. For cancer, it turns out, location is not everything. New DNA studies are showing that a particular breast cancer may have more in common with, say, a kidney cancer than with other breast cancers.

Once you throw away the notion of cancer as an anatomically defined disease and focus on these molecular abnormalities, treatment becomes a different ball game,” wrote Linda Geddes in the Oct. 22 issue of New Scientist.

New treatments using individualized vaccines created from a patient’s own tumor, and custom designed chemo and radiation therapies based on genetic markers, will turn some cancers from lethal to chronic diseases – at least when people have access to expensive treatments.

Last year, when for the first time researchers decoded all the genes of a cancer patient, they found mutations that are likely linked to the disease. But what they did not look for is what caused the mutations in the first place.

Heredity is thought to be responsible for 5 percent to 10 percent of cancers. Dr. Timothy Ley, director of the study that decoded the first cancer genes, told the New York Times that, in effect, the remaining 90 to 95 percent of cancers are due to chance: Most of the [the mutations that spark cancer] are just these random events in the universe that add up to something horrible.”

But while the synergy that ends in cancer is complex, it is not random.

People are getting more cancer because they’re exposed to more cancer-causing agents,” concludes a 2005 study by scientists at Boston University School of Public Health and University of Massachusetts, Lowell. They linked the post-World War II proliferation of environmental toxins to an increase in cancer, which the World Health Organization predicts will kill 45 percent more people from 2007 to 2030

The list of proven carcinogens we encounter each day is as long. Most of them – unlike tobacco and excess sun – are hard to avoid. In 2002, some 24,379 U.S. facilities reported disposing of or otherwise releasing 4.79 billion pounds of over 650 different chemicals.” That figure does not include vehicle emissions, most pesticides, volatile organic compounds and fertilizers.

In 1991, the National Research Council estimated that one in every six Americans lived within four miles of a Superfund site – the nation’s worst toxic waste sites.

So, since science has established a causal link between exposure to certain chemicals and certain cancers, between radiation and potentially dangerous gene mutations, between particular job exposures and particular cancers, why do we persist, Palin-like, in denying cause and concentrating on treatment?

Enter a chronic and potentially fatal disease: unchecked profit motive.

The struggle [between treatment and prevention] occurs across a fault line defined by money,” writes Peter Montague in Rachel’s Democracy & Health News. “[T]here’s no money in prevention, and once you’ve got cancer you’ll pay anything to try to stay alive. Cancer treatment is therefore a booming business, and cancer prevention is nowhere.”

Humanitarians and scoundrels alike at hospitals, pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies, university and private research programs, and government bureaucracies have stakes in the treatment industry. Not only is prevention less lucrative, but it is also likely to cost industries vast profits if they stop using, discharging or cleaning up known carcinogens – or compensating those who fall ill.

So, back to the global warming parallel. For decades, deniers – often compensated by the very corporations that profited from ignoring climate change – argued, while Earth burned, that they lacked evidence of causality. So, too, the cancer-complicit industries push for lower safety standards and ludicrously claim that the link is weak between cancer and exposure to carcinogens.

Developing new cancer treatments and cures is crucial, especially for those facing slash-and burn-treatments – even when refined by genetic advances.

But treatment should not eclipse preventing environmentally triggered cancer in the billions who fall victim, not only to cancer, but also to Palin-like ignorance of the relation between cause and effect.

Terry J. Allen is a veteran investigative reporter/​editor who has covered local and international politics and health and science issues. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Boston Globe, Times Argus, Harper’s, the Nation​.com, Salon​.com, and New Scientist . She has been an editor at Amnesty International, In These Times , and Cor​p​watch​.com. She is also a photographer. Her portraits of people sitting in some of the 1900 cars lined up outside a Newport, Vt., food drop can be seen on www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​t​e​r​r​y​a​l​l​e​n​/​a​lbums. Terry can be contacted at tallen@​igc.​org or through www​.ter​ry​jallen​.com.
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