An ounce of prevention

Editorial by Bruce Wark

illustration Graham Pilsworth

It’s been 25 years since the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope and still the hype continues. The dogged one-legged athlete hobbled halfway across Canada in 1980 before he had to abandon his marathon after cancer spread to his lungs. Fox died 10 months later, only 22. Since then, millions of runners have collected hundreds of millions for cancer research. Banks, cosmetic and fashion companies, the pharmaceutical industry, auto makers and department stores are among the sponsors who have climbed on board, using cancer runs for corporate promotion. This year, the shoe company Adidas sold 6,500 pairs of “Terry Fox Limited Edition Replica Shoes.” The proceeds from the $100 Terry Fox shoes are going to cancer research, but as Marketing magazine points out, Adidas managed to create a link between its brand, a cause supported passionately by Canadian consumers and “an association with a Canadian icon remembered with almost saint-like reverence across the country for his selfless determination and courage.” So much for the bad PR about Asian sweatshops!

Terry Fox passionately wanted a cure for cancer. And those millions of runners want it too. Everyone knows someone who has died of the disease. But runs, I’m afraid, aren’t the answer. Most of the money goes for research and let’s face it, cancer has reached epidemic proportions in spite of all the research. A paper published last year by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives cites StatsCan figures showing that in 1921, cancer killed 6.6 percent of men and 8.6 percent of women. Now, the official cancer figures show about one out of every three Canadians will develop cancer and about one out of every four will die of it. Official statistics reveal cancer is now the leading cause of premature death in Canada. This year, experts estimate 149,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer and 69,500 cancer victims will die.

True, health statistics can be misleading. Some experts argue that cancer rates are rising because the population is aging. But when CCPA authors Robert Chernomas and Lissa Donner adjusted the figures to take aging into account, they found that between 1970 and 1998, the number of new cases diagnosed per year increased by 35 percent for men and 27 percent for women. The same trends are apparent south of the border. The US National Cancer Institute now acknowledges that the number of cases diagnosed each year is expected to double by 2050.

Dr. Samuel Epstein, a persistent American critic of those who campaign for more scientific research, says cancer prevention is a political problem. He argues that governments and the cancer establishment are losing the “war on cancer” because they refuse to acknowledge that “our total environment —air, water, consumer and medicinal products, and the workplace—has become pervasively contaminated with a wide range of industrial carcinogens.” Epstein contends that “consumer products—foods and beverages, cosmetics and toiletries, and household products including home, lawn and garden pesticides—contain a wide range of undisclosed carcinogens which pose major, but generally unrecognized, avoidable risks of cancer.”

Unfortunately, government regulatory systems put corporate profits ahead of human health. Industrial substances are considered safe until proven unsafe and governments tolerate the release of harmful substances into the air and water and onto the land. The media trumpet major advances in cancer treatment at regular intervals, even though, as Chernomas and Donner point out, except for a few rare types of cancer, there have been few improvements in the outlook for patients with the most common forms of the disease. Meanwhile, people are being encouraged to run for hope, run for the cure, run for the magic bullet that will conquer cancer. The irony is that the big corporations, such as the cosmetic and drug companies, who sponsor runs and cancer research are often the ones whose products contain suspected carcinogens. The cure for cancer brought to you—Ta Da!—by what could be one of its leading causes.

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