This Message Brought to You by Cancer Incorporated
The Elephant in the Room of Breast Cancer Awareness Month
by Carol Norris
October 24, 2002
Here we are in the midst of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And with admirable intentions people wear pink ribbons and buy stamps and walk for the cure. But the people who are walking for a friend, a loved one, or themselves probably don't realize that while breast cancer is the #1 killer of middle aged women in the US, only five percent of the National Cancer Institute's budget goes to prevention research. And other research initiatives, often using taxpayers' money, are primarily focused on researching pharmaceutical drugs. Why?
One reason is money.
Surprise, surprise. There is little motivation to completely explore breast cancer prevention because there is not a multi-billion dollar pot of gold waiting at the end of that research rainbow. The exception is the big business of early detection in the form of mammograms. But this does not look at causative factors. The other huge business of eradication in the form of patentable pharmaceuticals does not include the exploration of less toxic, non-patentable forms of treatment. So we stick with the tried and true and profitable methods that have been well documented to not, in fact, be working as well as you might think, despite the skewed statistics.
Ah, the pharmaceutical industry. While some of its research is targeted toward the infirmed rich or the unwell insured, the overwhelming bulk of its research focuses on the already healthy to help them find pills that allow them to have an all-you-can-eat $9.95 dinner and not gain an ounce, or make their uncooperative penises stand at attention. That's where the real money is.
You see, fly-by-night sick people die or lose their jobs and their health insurance and then can't afford the drugs; or they get better. So they aren't reliable customers. And the poor never could afford them in the first place. So, why spend time and money researching drugs for them?
Don't buy it? The tropics are where 70% of the world's population lives. There the mostly poor population fights tropical diseases that kill or render sick millions upon millions. Of the 1,223 drugs brought to market between 1975 and 1996 only 13 focused on those deadly tropical diseases. And only four - count 'em four - of those drugs came from the private pharmaceutical companies, the other 9 coming from public research. And to add insult to disease the pharmaceutical industry often plays the 'our drugs cost so much because the research to help cure the sick and the poor is expensive' card. They often neglect to tell us that so many of the 'new drugs' they are researching are copies or only slight modifications of existing medications.
And we won't even go into environmental causes of these diseases and their solutions like finding ways for people to access clean drinking water that could prevent many of the illnesses people need the medications for in the first place. But again that's looking at cause and prevention. Ssshhh bad words, no money in them.
We are taught to look at lifestyle factors that increase cancer risk: Smoking? Not exercising? Eating crap? And to be sure, these factors are hugely important and can help prevent cancer. But, that isn't even remotely the whole story, which brings us to the other elephant in the room.
As with terrorism and poverty and the education crisis, those industries and regulatory agencies that we entrust to oversee such things are reluctant to look at other causes. They are loath to acknowledge the ever-growing substantiation for environmental factors as causative agents for breast cancer (and for prostate and other cancers and Alzheimer's, autoimmune disorders and asthma, to name a few) for if they do they question or implicate a whole mess of powerful people: the pesticide industry, the automobile industry, the technology industry, the nuclear industry, the cosmetics industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the beef industry, and scientists say most likely the biotech industry, to also name but a few.
A real move to decrease cancer would require disentangling lobbyists from lawmakers. It would require creating tougher regulatory laws in an age when these laws are being relaxed at an alarming rate. But we can't do that, they say, we're sorry you have breast cancer or that your child can't breathe so well, really we are, but we've got pills to sell and weeds to kill, organisms to genetically modify, SUVs to drive and lobbyists to think of.
Europe for whatever reason seems to get it a bit better than we do. Take for example some of the chefs in Europe who are launching a campaign to promote a Europe-wide ban on genetically modified livestock and crops. Europe won't import American beef because of the hormones and the antibiotics and the irradiation.
'But my doctor says'
By and large people think doctors are above politics and influence. Just like the government and the clergy and your therapist and your employer in whose company you've invested your life savings, and your parents, people are supposed to do right by you. And most of them do. But, some of them don't. Your doctor is human.
The truth is many doctors rely on pharmaceutical industry studies to update them on the latest advances. Some read them on their vacations that are at times paid for by the very same pharmaceutical industry. And while perfectly well intended, a number of doctors have gotten sucked into the same black hole of profit and perk as so many of us.
So, unluckily, it's your job to educate yourself. Did you know there might very well be healthier, less invasive alternatives to mammograms? Did you know the folks that brought you Breast Cancer Awareness Month are the makers of Tamoxifen? And did you know this same pharmaceutical company up until very recently produced toxic chemicals that might very well have helped cause some breast cancers? Did you also know some of the very chemicals you put in your body to prevent cancer might be causing another equally horrible illness somewhere else in your body?
Don't buy into the pharmaceutical TV ads, they often only tell part of the story. The FDA is in the process of relaxing rules governing ad content [i.e. fact distortions]. Get all the facts you can so you can make informed decisions about your health. Then educate your doctor. You are employing his/her service. If she doesn't listen, move on. If you are one of the 41 million Americans without health insurance, as I am, and can't afford to go to a doctor, you are the beneficiary of the policy of the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't guarantee health care to its citizens and non-citizens. So, like me, you just gotta keep your fingers crossed.
A very good, extensive resource (that I am not affiliated with in any way): What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Breast Cancer by Dr. John R. Lee, David Zava Ph.D., Virginia Hopkins M.A.
Carol Norris is a psychologist based in San Francisco, CA.