Senator Kennedy's Death and the War on Cancer

Where is the innovation?

Senator Edward Kennedy, a tireless crusader for health care for all Americans, died of brain cancer 40 years after President Nixon declared war on cancer.

It seems ironic that in these four decades so little progress has been made in this battle against the second greatest killer in America. Indeed the mortality rate from cancer has remained almost stable. Only the slightest decline in deaths has happened during this period and Senator Kennedy himself has now become part of the gloomy statistic.

One of the saddest aspects of this thus far losing war is the resistance of the medical establishment to fundamental change. Dr. Ralph Moss, has been a major critic of the cancer establishment since Manhattan’s Sloan Kettering Hospital fired him for his boldness more than three decades ago. He calls the lack of great progress in the war on cancer “amazing.”

He says that would be innovators, doctors with new ideas about how to combat the disease, have often been ignored or resisted.  “Over the years,” he says, “men and women with innovative ideas about fighting cancer have been deprived of hospital privileges or shunted aside when funds for research were allocated.”

Moss praises Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski in Houston, an innovator in the battle against brain cancer, for persisting against great resistance to his novel approach to treatment. Indeed, Burzynski was put on trial and acquitted twice, for using what he called “antineoplastons.”   

In medical history, resistance to major change goes back many years. Thus, Ignaz Semmelweis, in the mid-nineteenth century, stirred great controversy in Vienna when he put forth the theory that childbed fever, a disease that killed many women, could be prevented if doctors washed their hands. The medical establishment denounced him. His theory was rejected or ridiculed. Ultimately, he was hounded out of Vienna. But years after his death Louis Pasteur vindicated Semmelweis when he advanced the germ theory.

It’s estimated that more than 500,000 men and women will die of cancer this year. “The actual picture,” says Moss, “hasn’t changed that much over the years. There has been some progress in dealing with children’s leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, testicular and breast cancer but the statistics are still overwhelmingly negative.”  Perhaps the most encouraging development, he asserts, has been on the preventive front -- and he cites the largely successful campaign against smoking in America.

Moss points out that, in foreign countries, like Germany, there is more respect for innovators. Although many in the establishment may disagree with their methods, these foreign scientists who seek new paths receive government help and are not persecuted.

On a trip to Germany many years ago, I also found that to be true. I interviewed a doctor named Wolfang Scheef who ran a clinic in Bonn, in which he experimentally treated patients with hyperthermia.

Dr. Scheef said he was astounded by the backbiting that went on in American scientific circles over cancer. “I have the impression,” he said, “that, if you Americans would only talk to each other, you would be much further along in your war against cancer.”   

Senator Kennedy’s death, we can hope, will encourage this country to take a new look at cancer and seek new answers to the mysteries that have eluded us for all these years.

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