The Cancer Epidemic: Fiction or Reality?

James Morton

SCIENCE FOR THE PEOPLE re-examined their stance on the question of the cancer epidemic in their January/February 1990 issue and reached a conclusion that was neither scientific nor in the interest of the people. This error was made possible by a failure to engage in principled debate.

The proper procedure for criticizing claims of  cancer epidemic is first to take the principal work on that issue, Samuel Epstein’s The Politics of Cancer (Anchor/Doubleday, 1979), compare it with the latest and most pertinent data and show where he is in error. The primary writers in SftP, “Rick Hester,” a public health official who used a pseudonym, and Howard Frumkin, a physician on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, dismiss Epstein with a couple of sentences as being wrong, without a clue as to why he is so.

The single, absolutely indispensable body of data for addressing the cancer epidemic, the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) statistics on cancer incidence and mortality 1973 to 1985, is ignored. This report was released in January 1988. (Its significance and findings are discussed in the first part of this essay, ATC Z7.) For “Hester” and Frumkin to overlook it is entirely analogous to looking for a crime wave and using arrest and conviction statistics four years out of date.

Perhaps “Hester” and Frumkin ignore the current edition of SEER because it consistently reinforces Epstein’s position and shows unequivocally epidemic* or virtually epidemic increases in cancer for a number of sectors, but most seriously for breast cancer incidence among white women in 1983,1984 and 1985.

Frumkin attempts to buttress their arguments by misusing a study by John Bailar and Elaine Smith published in 1986 and relying on 1981 incidence and mortality data. Bailar and Smith do not attempt to address the question of cancer epidemic but rather effectively destroy the National Institute of Cancer’s claim that we are winning the war on cancer. If Frumkin had used the latest version of the SEER data that Bailar and Smith employed, increases that he dismissed as slight become — in the space of four years — classically epidemic.

Hester’s argument relies on the primary apologists for the epidemic, Sir Richard Doll and his protege Richard Peto. According to Hester they are “among the world’s foremost experts” and “the dominant explainers of the pattern of cancer in the United States.” He even places Doll on the left, “politically courageous in the early part of his research career, and reportedly denied entry into the United States at one point because of his politics.”

What “Hester” does not mention is that Doll is director and warden of Green College, Oxford, an industrially financed institution that, in the words of a founding fellow, is designed to be “a special point of entry for industrial interests wishing to collaborate with university departments in research.” Nor does it impress “Hester” that Doll is an enthusiastic supporter of industry efforts to deny the carcinogenicity of the Dioxin-laden herbicides, 2,4-D and 2,4,51—an act that puts Doll squarely in the camp of the most depraved chemical-industry hacks. But then SEER puts Doll and Peto in that camp, just as Epstein has for the last ten years. If I were “Hester,” I wouldn’t sign my real name either!

Stephanie Pollack’s introductory article poses this question: “Let us assume that there is no massive cancer epidemic associated with occupational and environmental exposure to industrial chemicals … what are the implications?” For Frumkin they include some acquiescence in our poisoning we need to be “open minded” on thresholds — the idea that it is possible to determine àsafe, long-term, low-level dose of a carcinogen (we are a lot closer to figuring out the technology for nuclear fusion).

Frumkin feels that “tradeoffs are inevitable … some cancer may be justified by economic benefits … and that it is not inherently evil or exploitative that people would voluntarily assume some cancer risk in return for other benefits.”

But in a world with a cancer epidemic propelled by poisons that more thoroughly contaminate the environment daily, it is insane to be concerned about “thresholds’ you cross, not just in those entirely unnecessary “tradeoffs’ you are forced to accept to earn a living, but also when you drink, bathe, breathe and eat An epidemic of cancer implies revolutionary change.—J.M.

(Readers interested in pursuing the cancer epidemic debate, including a trenchant critique of “the cancer establishment” and especially the claims of Doll and Peto, are encouraged to consult Dr. Samuel Epstein’s congressional testimony, “Losing the War Against Cancer: Who’s to Blame and What to Do About It,” presented to the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. It appears in the Congressional Record, September 9, 1987, pages E3449-E3454, and can be obtained from your congressperson’s office –ed.)

*Epidemiologists define an epidemic as a five percent or more annual increase in incidence of mortality. But cancer is different from an infectious disease such as smallpox. It is almost always fatal and, as a disorder of cellular reproduction, it points to problems in every aspect of survival. Even a very small, continual increase in cancer is of the gravest consequence.

September-October 1990, ATC 28