Secret History of War on Cancer

The Secret History of the War on Cancer
This book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer,is way overdue at the library. So I am staying up late to write a blog post about the book. This book is a hefty 505 pages. Much fatter than the Eat Food Mostly Plants book of the pithy phrase writer, Michael Pollan.

Devra Davis lost both her parents to cancer. And she’s the Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. And a professor at the Department of Epidemiology at the Graduate School of Health.

A summary of the book from the New York Times article (see link at bottom):

The result of twenty years of research, Davis’s book tracks the history of cancer studies from before World War II through the early 1990s and doesn’t hesitate to indict major corporations and politicians (as well as her former colleagues), claiming they routinely manipulated and fudged data about cancer-causing agents like benzene and tobacco. Her essential argument is that far too many people get cancer than is necessary and that far too much of the “war on cancer” is devoted to treatment rather than prevention.

Snippets that I found interesting:

We can’t be sure why so many more physicians and researchers are coming down with cancer…One colleague [said:] “I used to mix my own chemotherapy cocktails for patients two decades ago. You know that stuff is really foul. I did this with no hoods. No masks. No nothing, just sloshing around with all those nice, nasty killer compounds that we would prepare to inject into our patients.”

On her mother’s cancer:

My mother always loved a good kosher hotdog. I knew that the stomach cancer that she had could come about after years of eating lots of preservatives that are used to make hotdogs–nitrates in meat get transformed by stomach acids to nitrosamines, a well-established potent cause of cancer. At this point, one hotdog more or less after a lifetime of salami, smoked salmon, pastrami, corned beef, and those other deli foods, coupled with all that coal smoke she had swallowed, probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.

On herbal remedies and controlled studies:

A woman who had been chief nutritionist at Sloan-Kettering had left for a year earlier with advanced breast cancer. Because the cancer had spread through her body, Gaynor never expected to see her again. Six months later, she walked into his office. The tumors were gone. Gaynor was stunned and asked her what she had done.

She explained that “a guy named Ralph in Wyoming had come up with this recipe for purple herbs. I had nothing to lose. You had all written me off. So I tried them.”

Gaynor managed to get the purple remedy delivered to him at Cornell and gave it to patients who had been sent home to die. His results so far were amazing. Others were trying to figure out what exactly was in this mixture.

I phoned Chalmers right away, “Tom, I’ve found something you have to check out!” I began to explain what Gaynor was doing.

“Are you mad!?” Chalmers asked. “You must think I’m crazy! I could never take herbs that nobody has ever studied. I’ve spent my life studying medicine scientifically. I refuse to even think about such a thing.”

“But Tom, ” I pleaded. “You’re going to die. Why not try this?”
“Of course, I’m going to die. I know that. If there was a randomized trial, I would consider it. But unless this remedy is being studied under controlled conditions, it’s out of the question.”

Within a few months, Chalmers was dead.

Finally, some links for more exploration:
New York Times: Is there a Secret History of the War on Cancer?
This link has a section for comments and questions. Many comments have been posted.

Washington Post: Author’s Book on Cancer Fuels Flames Again
In particular, this article quotes Elizabeth M. Whelan, president and founder of the American Council on Science and Health, a New York group of doctors and scientists who question the reliability of the science government uses to regulate. She calls Davis’s book “fringe.”

The real health risks, Whelan said, are tobacco, exposure to sunlight, obesity, and for women, sexual habits, childlessness and drinking too much.

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