Samuel S. Epstein
Chicago—President Reagan has at last made a major contribution to cancer prevention. His illness has stimulated the dormant national debate on whether we're winning the war against cancer.
Congress and the public have been successfully conned by an unholy alliance between the chemical industry and the "cancer establishment"—the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute—into believing that we are winning that battle.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Contrary to optimistic and misleading claims, there have been major increases in cancer rates in the general population on an overall and on an age-adjusted basis, and involving a wide range of organs.
Even higher cancer rates are being seen among blacks, people living in the vicinity of petrochemical, mining, and smelting plants (which inefficiently and wastefully discharge their chemical carcinogens into the air of the surrounding community), and for workers. Some 11 million U.S. workers are exposed to carcinogens in their workplace. Cancer rates in some industries are more than five times that of the general population.
Increasing U.S. cancer rates reflect past and continuing exposure to chemical carcinogens in our air, water, food, and workplaces. Industry and the cancer establishment have attempted to dismiss such evidence and attribute any increases to faulty lifestyle, particularly tobacco and diet. But there are important causes of lung cancer besides smoking, and linking diet to cancer is a tenuous hypothesis at best.
In 1970, the cancer establishment told Congress: Give us the money, we'll do the job. Congress was conned into passing the National Cancer Act; the public was conned into believing more money could cure cancer.
But, in the 15 years since then, with the exception of some uncommon cancers, there has been no substantial improvement in cure rates—and in particular for the major cancer killers: lung, breast and colon. Cure rates among blacks are even lower than for whites.
Millions have died from what should be a preventable disease. Responsibility for this carnage lies in the reckless indifference of the chemical and mining industries, insisting on short-term gains to the detriment of long-term public health, and economic interests, and in the cancer establishment's unfounded emphasis on diagnosis and treatment to the virtual exclusion of curbing exposure to environmental and occupational carcinogens.
It's time the public wakes up to the fact that millions are dying unnecessarily and demands that Congress crack down on the hazards. And, the cancer establishment must be whipped into line with the reality that cancer prevention must become a national priority.