July 11, 2007

The Cancer Industry

Over at The Plank, Mike Crowley notes that Tommy Thompson has vowed to "end breast cancer" in eight years and comments:
[I[t's not as though breast cancer, of all diseases, persists from a lack of publicity and political focus. My guess is we're already doing about as much as can be done.
Actually, my understanding is that we're not necessarily doing all we can. Yes, there's a gigantic breast-cancer industry out there. Organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the biggest group of them all, raise millions to raise awareness about breast cancer, run "pink ribbon" campaigns and annual races, and pour money into the search for finding a cure. Corporations line up to donate money because, hey, it's a good cause—who's against finding a cure for breast cancer?

Much of that is laudable. There's just one problem: As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her classic Harper's essay on the subject, "Welcome to Cancerland," inherited genes are only thought to account for about 10 percent of breast cancers, and lifestyle choices have been largely ruled out as a major cause. So a lot of experts and feminists think there should be a much greater focus on environmental factors—toxins and carcinogens in the air and water. None have been definitively linked to breast cancer yet, though many have been shown to cause the disease in animals. Although the big corporate-backed breast-cancer groups do mention this now and again, it definitely gets less emphasis.

For obvious reasons, no one wants to talk too loudly about, say, curbing industrial carcinogens. That gets messy and complicated. It's much less controversial to promote treatments and hold out hope for a miracle cure. Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical companies are big boosters of the Komen Foundation, which, in 1998, was the only national breast-cancer group to endorse tamoxifen as a treatment, despite concerns about its link to uterine cancer. Mary Ann Swissler wrote a fascinating piece for Southern Exposure in 2002 about the darker side of the Komen Foundation. (Obviously that's not an indictment of all groups everywhere, or the many good things Komen does.)

Anyway, I doubt that Tommy Thompson's going to change all of this, but it does seem like there's a lot of room for improvement.
-- Brad Plumer 12:09 AM || ||