The Bigger Cancer Picture

Written by Carol Teltschick, Author of I Once Walked Barefoot

I WAS NOT ANGRY because I had a terrible disease. For that I was deeply sad. The anger was against something nasty, creepy and wrong with this complicated thing called Cancer Treatment. From the over-crowded, fast-food-like-drive-through cancer lanes (take these drugs and get out of the way, lady, we got people lined up behind you), to the support groups, counselors, hotlines, chat rooms and websites that instructed me to “stay positive” and “find joy in everyday life,” they were all skipping blithely along as if the methods being used to save my life were not, with every passing day, obliterating the very me of me. Supposing my doctors succeed, I wondered, who will be left to captain the battered body they leave behind? Whose life will they have saved? Yes, something was wickedly wrong, but to find out exactly what it was, and at whom I was angry, I had to leave the realm of Personal Misery and delve into the Bigger Cancer Picture.
I spent hours trying to uncover the plain facts, which were mostly buried in hype and mythology. Hours became days, days became weeks, and weeks became months but at last the True Bigger Picture began to emerge. It is a picture that required nearly 600,000 Americans to die from cancer last year; a picture in which cancer is the number two killer in our country, and heading rapidly for position number one. Because no matter how hard anyone tries, or how bravely we endure the brutality of our treatments, cancer is having its way with us. And it has been going on like this for decade upon decade.
I was shocked.
Equally shocking was the fact that I, along with almost everyone I could think of, had no idea that this was happening. We all knew that cancer was a frightening and deadly disease, sometimes calling it “the C word” in an inept attempt to rob it of its evil powers, but that was it. None of us knew that cancer had become an epidemic, and none of us had an inkling the treatments are barbaric. We could tell you how many people died in the World Trade building (over 3,000). Or how many soldiers have died so far in Iraq (over 3,000 and counting, every day on national news). So why didn’t we know that almost 600,000 Americans would die from cancer in 2007? Or that more American women have died from breast cancer in the last twenty years than all of the Americans killed in World War I, II, Vietnam, and Korea combined?
Could it be that we didn’t want to know?
Or could it be that we were not suppose to know?
The shameful truth is this: after decade upon decade of increasing deaths, our doctors remain incapable of healing us from the scourge of cancer; and have made little progress on what I call the Big Three. The ability to: 1) detect the presence of cancer before it forms a tumor; 2) heal people without destroying them; 3) identify the causes of cancer for the purpose of preventing it. After almost a century of research, after billions upon billions of dollars spent, we have still not managed to achieve even one of these critical abilities. Who are we, then, to be morally outraged by cruelties on other continents? We recoil in collective horror at the very mention of genital mutilation, genocide, malnutrition and children orphaned by AIDS. But when is the last time you took a good long look at the mutilation we call mastectomy; tried to imagine living with a bag of your own excrement strapped to your waist because you no longer have a rectum; worried about children orphaned by cancer, or the quality of the food you yourself eat?
Now that I have become intimate with the ways of cancer, I find it hard to believe that, instead of slogging obediently through all the marketing hype in our supermarkets, we don’t just cut the crap and demand our right to eat food that is good for us—as well as the right to live in an environment that is not full of carcinogens. Let me describe only one of the many ways in which our government fails to recognize that right. Right now, the FDA allows the addition of six different synthetic hormones to beef that has been raised in the United States; three of these are sex hormones and three of them are growth hormones. Hormone driven cancers (such as breast and prostate) have been on an alarming rise for years and are now the most common forms of cancer, yet we are still not conducting studies to determine whether hormones (or other additives) in our food have a causal relationship. Meat producers inject their cattle with hormones for one reason only: to force them to gain weight. Fast weight gain equals bigger profits. And we, their customers, only urge them on by continuing to consume the cheapest, over-processed products available. We’re happy to spend our hard-earned money on a certain kind of car, cell phone, MP3 player or whatever happens to be in fashion, but spend more on food? Forget it.
Is anyone concerned about what effect all of this is having on our health? [of course people are – again, don’t accuse your reader of being uncaring! I would say that anyone whose life is turned upside down, inside out by cancer should be concerned but are they?] Well, I am, now that my life has been ransacked by a hormone-driven cancer. But look what happened when I asked my oncologist if I should at least avoid hormone-laden foods in the future. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Oh no, I don’t tell my patients to follow any kind of dietary restrictions.” Nor does she have any qualms about advising me to take five years worth of dangerous drugs that have been invented for the sole purpose of blocking the estrogen in my body, natural or unnatural. The fact that these drugs are also associated with increased risk of blood clots, stroke, endometrial cancer, vaginal atrophy, and joint and muscle pain is deemed “unfortunate.”
“C’mon now,” I say. “If you’re so sure my body’s own hormones are bad for me, why aren’t you worried about hormones in my food?”
“We don’t have data on this,” my oncologist answers, “so I can’t tell you anything.”
“Why don’t you have the data? You have data on chemo, you have data on hormone blockers and inhibitors, you have data on how likely I am to live or die.”
“We haven’t done the studies.” Another shrug and a light scolding, reminding me that she has fifteen minutes per patient and that I am nearing the end of my time slot without having agreed to take the drugs she is prescribing.
This is how I came to understand that our doctors—along with the entire industrial-medical complex that we call a health care system—is out to kill cancer, and if they have to maim and poison you to do it, well…it’s their job. Call me uncooperative, call me ungrateful, but I see things from a different perspective. Because it just so happens that, only weeks after finishing a grueling two months on a drug called Taxol (or Paclitaxel), the New England Journal of medicine released a study showing that this drug was of no benefit in treating the kind of hormone receptive cancer I had. Since nerve damage is only one of the many dangerous side effects of Taxol, it was hard to just shrug my shoulders and call it water under the bridge. Millions of women are being given Taxol for hormone receptive cancers and I wonder how many of them learned about this study. In my case, it was a friend who told me about it, not my oncologist.
So whether or not my oncologist wants to stick her head in the sand and dismiss the relationships between our food, our environment and cancer, I hope you won’t. It is not enough to say, “It’s too difficult and too expensive to find out whether pesticides (or hormones, or genetically modified foods, or anything else) will hurt you, so let’s just wait and see if they make you sick.” Do you know how much it costs to treat cancer in this country? [it’s highly possible that your reader may have some idea – how about saying “Not many people have an idea how much it costs to treat cancer. Or Many people are unaware”]Our National Cancer Institute reports that, in 2004 alone, we spent $71.1 billion on treatment, an additional $10 to $15 billion on screening, and the overall economic burden (including losses in time and economic productivity) amounted to $190 billion. This rivals current spending on the war in Iraq and with a price tag like that one might expect the treatments to actually work. Meanwhile we all sit around speculating about what’s wrong with our health care system and how to fix it, bizarrely omitting the epidemic of cancer from our discussions.
One thing is certain: whatever or whoever is responsible for the rising tide of cancer in our lives, it is the general public who are paying for it. The increasing costs of health insurance and treatments are tough, but what is really at stake here is the ultimate price of life and health, and paying that price constitutes a breach of human rights no less horrible or inexcusable than those occurring in other countries.
On top of all this, the FDA, and apparently our entire medical profession, are allowing drug manufacturers far too much control in shaping the paths we follow when researching and treating cancer. Oncologists have a habit of saying it how “unfortunate” it is that chemo therapy comes with so many dangerous side-effects, but is “the best they can offer.” What I want to know is: Why is this the best we can offer? Spend a few months on chemo, and I promise you, you’ll be asking the same question. [your reader might just be a cancer survivor] And the repeated mouthing of that poster-word-for-cancer, “unfortunate,” will soon make it clear that choosing your so-called treatment options, as well as your eventual outcome, is indeed just another turn of the wheel of fortune. One might even say that our doctors are conducting a gigantic clinical trial without calling it by its true name. Have a look at the liability forms a patient must sign before embarking on a trip to Chemo Land and you’ll see what I mean. They look amazingly like the forms for entering a “real” clinical trial. Which is to say, you sign your life away, because everyone knows the drugs are dangerous and their results unpredictable.
Sitting through a few rounds of chemo will also help you understand why I now believe that, if we focused our research and treatments more on health care—with emphasis on care—and less on medicine for profit, our war on cancer might be transformed into a search for methods that heal instead of destroy. We need a humane solution to the problem of cancer—not just any solution.
Finally, here’s a question for those in charge of our media. Why, when nearly 600,000 people died last year from cancer, do your cameras remain focused on Lance Armstrong, or anyone who keeps a positive attitude and beats the odds? Our obsession with people who fight cancer and beat cancer has given rise to the debilitating myth that this disease can be controlled and defeated by the patient’s own will, and ultimately lays the blame of death on those who die. You had a bad attitude, you cried, you complained, had a bad lifestyle. You did it to yourself. In 2003, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle intimated that the exceptionally high rate of breast cancer in Marin country was most likely due to the habits of the well-to-do women who live there—they’re all getting breast cancer because they’re waiting too long to have their children. Nice try, but can anyone tell me why more men are getting breast cancer too? [Alright Carol! Right on!]
People are not inflicting cancer on themselves. And cancer is not something that happens to “other people.” It strikes people of all ages, races, income levels, lifestyles and levels of education and you can be absolutely sure that, if attitude was everything, nearly 600,000 people a year would not be allowing themselves to die of this disease. Because if there’s one thing we all agree on, it’s that cancer is a bad way to go. Our media might very well have started out with the intention of inspiring hope, but by now it’s starting to look like the intentional denial of a terrifying epidemic.
We do not—as a nation, as a health care system, or as individuals who believe in human rights—recognize and acknowledge the extent of this disease, or the people and families who are being destroyed by it. Cancer deaths have tripled since 1930 while our ability to reduce them has only improved by a few measly percent. Yet our media sends out comforting messages, telling us that “cancer deaths are down.” Until we face the truth about cancer, the real problems are not likely to improve.