In America’s long war on cancer, there’s been an internal struggle between advocates of diagnosis and treatment -- and those who believe the key to victory lies in prevention.
Today, the prevention advocates won a significant battle.
The President’s Cancer Panel issued a report declaring that environmental carcinogens cause a great many more cancers than previously believed.
President Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971 and, while some progress has been made in eradicating some cancers, the mortality rate from cancers remains alarmingly high. New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof says the President’s panel is the “Mt. Everest of the medical mainstream” and that’s why it’s “astonishing to learn that it is poised to join ranks with the organic food movement and declare: chemicals threaten our bodies.”
The panel says that the “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States -- many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un-studied or under-studied and largely unregulated -- exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”
The 200-page report calls for much tougher regulation of chemicals.
“This report,” said Congressman Eliot Engel of the Bronx, a member of the House subcommittee on health, “is a bombshell. It says that our environment, our lives are saturated with chemicals that may be deadly. We have seen levels of cancer go sky high. Common sense should tell us it’s not a matter of chance.”
Engel predicts that industries that rely on chemicals will come down hard on this report. “In my 22 years in Congress, I have heard industry cry out against progress again and again. Remember how they insisted that tobacco didn’t cause cancer. These guys always tell you the sky is falling and it doesn’t happen..”
Engel says that, in an era of intense, partisan division in Washington, “this report can change our whole outlook. It sounds the alarm. And, since cancer affects us all, Democrats and Republicans, and our families, this issue gives us an opportunity for a real, bi-partisan approach to the prevention of cancer.”
The chairman of the Health subcommittee, Frank Pallone of Long Branch, New Jersey, agrees that there needs to be more emphasis on what are the root causes of cancer. He told me the panel’s report was “very constructive and helpful.”
For decades, Dr. Samuel Epstein, at the University of Illinois, has been sounding the alarm about cancer-causing ehemicals in the environment. He pointed out to me that cancers, other than those caused by smoking, have escalated sharply from 1971 to 2005. He faults the National Cancer Institute for failing to develop any listing of avoidable exposure to a wide range of carcinogens. He’s hopeful that this presidential panel’s work may bring some changes in policy.
The presidential panel says that “infants, children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants.”
It seems to me that statement alone is frightening. It sounds an alarm. And our representatives in Washington, New York and Albany will ignore it at our peril.
President Obama, the legislators and the leaders of organized medicine need to focus their attention on prevention in the long and, so far, losing war on cancer.
It would be almost criminal to ignore the warning from this panel of distinguished doctors. The medical profession and our government must move decisively to set the goal that has eluded us since Nixon declared war on cancer nearly 40 years ago. And history dictates that a new approach is needed.
We must make prevention our highest priority in the war on cancer.