We Must Deal with the Causes, Not Only the Symptoms of Cancer

By Glenn Ashton · 13 Nov 2014

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Picture: Jane Whiteoaks
Picture: Jane Whiteoaks

We are regularly reminded of the growing global blight of cancer by repetitive education drives during cancer awareness months. But surely we should pay more attention to the causes, rather than simply raise awareness? Perhaps we fail to do so because the commercial imperative makes it easier to fundraise around the impacts of cancer rather than analysing the root causes?

October was breast (and liver) cancer month, September prostate cancer and November is pancreatic, stomach, lung and carcinoid awareness month. The only months not allocated a cancer type are August and December. September has six cancers, January just one.

We cannot deny the importance of increasing cancer awareness. Almost everyone has been touched by cancer, losing friends, family or colleagues to one of today’s most common causes of death.

But let’s place this in perspective. A century ago less than one in ten would die of cancer. Today we are up to around one in three and rising. So why have cancer rates have risen so far, so fast, with no respite in sight?

One explanation for the increase is that we live longer. However this is trite and fails to properly explain significant increases in previously rare types of cancer, increasingly linked to our body burden of chemical pollutants. Yet it remains complicated to isolate any single reason, let alone tease out complex, inter-related causes.

Even if we identify carcinogens, deniability is almost assured. It took the tobacco industry more than half a century to reluctantly admit that smoking may be linked to cancer. Chemical, pesticide, plastic, pharmaceutical, energy and related industries are just as evasive and lawyered-up to protect their reputations and profit margins against potential damage suits related to their products.

Thousands of new artificial chemical products are introduced into our environment annually. Some are tested, but always in isolation. Others are not. We are constantly exposed to complex mixes and combinations of chemicals, immersed in a toxic soup. While there certainly are some naturally occurring carcinogens, these are intermixed and synergised or potentiated by tens of thousands of artificial compounds.

Many compounds have been positively identified as having a causal relationship to cancer. However chemical manufacturers invest vast sums of money to engage in selective science so that they can claim their products do meet safety standards, simultaneously attacking anyone bold enough to query their credentials.

This happened to Rachel Carson, who gave birth to the environmental movement when she published “Silent Spring” which revealed the impacts of agricultural pesticides on people and nature. Monsanto, then a major chemical company and now the world’s biggest seed company, viciously attacked her from the outset, just as it has since attacked those who raise concerns about the safety and desirability of their genetically modified seeds and associated chemicals. There is a grim irony to Carson’s death, soon after the publication of Silent Spring, due to breast cancer.

Today we have extensive lists of chemicals, suspected and known to be carcinogenic. They are sold and used globally and have become ubiquitous in our lives. Some hormone disrupting chemicals affect the second generation, so mothers pass on carcinogenic genetic damage to daughters. Therefore firmly establishing the causes of cancer is very difficult, especially when up against massive chemical corporations, backed by massive legal resources. So how can ordinary people deal with this risk?

We have two choices. First we need to avoid known carcinogens wherever possible, by purchasing healthy foods and avoiding chemical exposure. Secondly we need to spend more time and effort not just in raising cancer awareness, but in exposing the products responsible for the precipitous rise in cancer rates. This can only happen through a conscious, educated public. This is why we must link cancer awareness to awareness of the actual causes of cancer.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Rory Verified user
17 Nov

Cancer Awareness

I agree with you Glenn we also need to beef up people's awareness of the multitude of causes. But more than that we also need to get people thinking about how to fix the flaws in our economic systems which enable nefarious acts like polluting the environment to be so hugely rewarded in monetary in money terms.

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