Cancer Isn’t a Medical Problem

An article published in the journal Cancer Research shows what’s wrong with cancer research. Science Daily reports on it under the title “Newly Discovered Gene Interaction Could Lead to Novel Cancer Therapies.”

Basically, the research argues that two genes act together to cause cell death. So the therapy is to manipulate those genes so they dance together and kill cancer cells. Think of it as GMO—genetically modified oncology.

So the first thing that’s wrong is that this simply continues the conventional and so far uninspiring approach to cancer based on chemical assaults on cells gone wild. At the same time, alternatives are ignored, such as the approach that thinks about cancer as an imbalance in tissues, not cells—tissues that ordinarily keep cancers in check. The tissues of the immune system are heavily, although not exclusively involved. In other words, instead of supporting the body in healing itself, time and attention is dominated by various forms of assault.

The second thing that’s wrong is that this GMO approach is, like other dominant cancer solutions, cooked in big money and big technology. It’s not just that big money buys off scientists. It and with it big technology create the institutional structure and means for successful careers: other approaches might be interesting, but they won’t bring home the bacon.

But for me the most important thing that’s wrong is that cancer isn’t a medical problem. Cancer treatment might be, but not cancer. Cancer is a public health problem, a realm in which big technology has found less fertile ground.

However, big technology has another relationship to cancer, as I’m sure you’re well aware. A recent example is the cancer cluster that has emerged among workers at a Goodyear tire factory in Niagara Falls. The Center for Public Integrity reports that a federal agency they don’t name (actually, it’s the CDC) is studying the issue. No mention is made of lawsuits against Goodyear or compensation for the victims. No mention is made of actual actions the CDC is taking to prevent similar cancer outbreaks—after all, CDC is an abbreviation for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prevention”—as in “Make sure it doesn’t happen again.” And this regarding exposure to a chemical used in tire manufacturing that the chemical’s maker (DuPont) knew posed a cancer threat in 1954.

This is the business end of big technology.

But focusing on technology is a mistake. It treats the public health problem as if it fell from the sky.

The technologies that bath us in chemical assaults at work, at home, in public spaces, in natural places are no accident—although they’re certainly a mistake.

Human beings—with economic and social power—decide what technologies to use in their factories and in the products they promote and sell. So this is about power. Specifically it’s about the power to ignore potential threats posed by a technology and keep the people who will be exposed in the dark about it and keep the people who knew about the risk and introduced the technology anyway out of jail for the assault.

When the exposure has its expected effect and the victims are damaged with cancer and a wide variety of other illnesses, what should be a public health problem is transformed into a medical problem for which the victims and medical professionals are made responsible, none of whom have any power over the technological decisions that cause cancer and other damage in the first place and whose options for treatment are narrowed to what is most commercially viable for human beings with the economic and social power to make decisions about medical technologies.

But that could change—and should.