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The Secret History of the War on Cancer

For many years, I have explained to questioning family members and friends why I cannot support conventional cancer-fighting fundraising campaigns.

I am not completely against conventional medical treatment options for different types of cancer. For example, for a good number of people that I have worked with over the past several years, I have fully supported and encouraged surgical excision of malignant tumours. My wariness of the mainstream cancer-fighting industry pertains to what I believe is excessive and often times inappropriate use of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as the lack of attention that is given to relevant environmental and personal lifestyle factors.

At long last, a devastating and truly noteworthy book on this topic has been published. It's called The Secret History of the War on Cancer, written by Devra Davis, PhD, MPH.

I am grateful to have the permission of Andrew Nikiforuk, a well known Canadian journalist, to share his helpful review of Dr. Davis' book.


Andrew Nikiforuk's Review of The Secret History of the War on Cancer, written by Devra Davis, PhD, MPH.

In 1936, the world's cancer experts assembled in Brussels to talk shop. The gathering heard a lot about workshop hazards and environmental toxins. A British scientist, who had studied identical twins, argued that cancer wasn't inherited, but mostly the product of early chemical exposures in life. A meticulous Argentine showed how sunlight combined with hydrocarbons could sprout tumours on rats. Others explained how regular exposure to the hormone estrogen prompted male rodents to grow unseemly breasts. Everyone agreed that arsenic and benzene were workplace killers, too.

Since then, the cancer establishment has retreated from the truth faster than Canada's commitment to a greener country. What began as sincere investigation into the economic root causes of a complex set of 200 different diseases quickly degenerated into a single-minded focus on treatments after the Second World War, argues Devra Davis, one of North America's sharpest epidemiologists (her previous book, When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, was a finalist for the National Book Award).

In the process, industry and its propaganda hit men have used every opportunity to discredit, dismiss or disparage information on cancer hazards in the workplace or at home. So let me warn comfortable readers here and now. This courageous and altogether horrible book is about as unsettling as it can get. It painstakingly documents such a persistently foul pattern of deceit and denial that I often wanted to throw it against a wall and scream.

Furthermore, Davis's hair-raising investigation - in what is easily the most important science book of the year - will rob you of any lingering, Disney-like fantasies you might have entertained about the nobility of cancer fundraising campaigns. And if you have lost a relative or friend to a malignant tumour (odds are you have), Davis will make you weep again, knowing that fraud and outright criminal neglect have turned a 40-year-long medical war into a questionable $70-billion charade.

Even Davis can't hide her own disbelief at times: "Astonishing alliances between naive or far too clever academics and folks with major economic interests in selling potentially cancerous materials have kept us from figuring out whether or not many modern products affect our chances of developing cancer." She then diligently documents, for example, how some of the world's most prominent cancer researchers, such as the late Sir Richard Doll, the epidemiologist who was instrumental in linking smoking to health problems, secretly worked for chemical firms without disclosing these ties when publishing studies.

Davis, a modern scientist committed to moral clarity, knows her stuff and then some. After decades of front-line battles against air polluters, she now heads the world's first Centre on Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. She too has smelled and felt cancer firsthand, having lost two parents and many friends, including the comic Andrea Martin*, to the disease. She shines, in short, with a burning indignation about the abuse of power in medicine.

Her angry history of the way free and open discourse on cancers in the workplace has become as elusive as meaningful political debates reveals the rot with the bluntness of a chemo treatment. When men who bottled liquid lead as a gasoline additive in the 1920s started to drop like flies, General Motors blamed the workers and called lead a "natural contaminant." When dye-makers at DuPont got bladder cancer from working with benzidine in the 1930s, the company, like an errant spouse, first denied the findings. Then they refused to record cases. Finally, they suppressed or delayed publishing the results.

After inhaling tar and poisonous fumes from coke ovens, black steel workers succumbed to waves of lung cancer in the 1950s. Yet industry argued that blacks were just more vulnerable to lung-consuming tumours. It took an enterprising study of dying Mormon coke-oven workers to challenge the lie. Damning studies on the health of asbestos workers couldn't find a home in the 1930s, and to this day, Canada shamefully remains an exporter of the lung destroyer.

Benzene, a true-blue leukemia-maker that can cause workers to bleed out, has been the subject of 100 years of deceit and denial. When Myron Mehlman, a toxicologist with Mobil Oil, told Japanese officials in 1989 that gasoline with 5-per-cent benzene was damned dangerous and shouldn't be sold, the company fired him. Davis reports that ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Shell have invested $27-million in China to "contradict earlier claims that link exposure to low- and mid-levels of benzene to cancers and other diseases."

In 1986, researcher William Fayerweather put together a computerized system for tracking the health of every worker at DuPont's chemical plants. Davis found that "neither he nor his system any longer work for DuPont." She reports that men and women who produced computer chips for IBM are now dying young from cancers of the breast, bone marrow and kidney.

While China now leads a global economic boom, it's also exploring new opportunities for cancer. Even its secretive, Ottawa-like government now concedes that the country's industries use the nation's rivers as industrial urinals. Not surprisingly, China now lists cancer as its number-one killer.

Many of Davis's findings simply stunned me. Consider the invasion of computerized imaging technology (CT scans) in modern medicine. Since its invention in the 1970s, CT scanning has become a $100-billion industry that creates nifty three-dimensional images, yet exposes patients to radiation. CT scans have become such a favoured technology that one in every three scans recommended for children is probably unnecessary.

In the last 25 years, the amount of radiation zapping North Americans from scanning and the like has increased fivefold. Now ponder this stunner: "Modern America's annual exposure to radiation from diagnostic machines is equal to that released by a nuclear accident that spewed the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshimas across much of Russia and Eastern Europe." Most physicians don't know that a typical CT scan equals 400 chest X-rays. A group of researchers at Yale now estimate that radiation from CT scans of the head and abdomen will kill 2,500 people a year.

Davis also presents some disturbing data on aspartame, cellphones and Ritalin. Armed with what a prominent toxicologist would later describe as "uninterpretable and worthless" studies on aspartame, Donald Rumsfeld, then CEO of Searle & Co. (since acquired by Monsanto), used his formidable political contacts to gain government approval for the food additive in 1981. Yet the U.S. Air Force still reports that aspartame "can cause serious brain problems in pilots." Despite whatever malarkey you might have read, cellphone users still have double the risk of brain cancer and folks under 18 years of age really shouldn't be using them. Ritalin, the drug to slow kids down, can rearrange an individual's chromosomes, yet in some school districts more than 10 per cent of the students are now on the drug. As Davis notes, "Highly profitable industries have no incentive to ask whether the products on which they depend may have adverse consequences."

Each and every chapter in this book offers a uncomfortable revelation. Pioneering research on the deadly effects of tobacco and environmental hormones by the Nazis secretly found its way to many of U.S. corporations producing the same questionable goods. The American Cancer Society spends less than 10 per cent of its billion-dollar budget on independent studies. The great Wilhelm Hueper, the bold pathologist who wrote the book on "occupational tumours," suffered one indignity after another for simply reporting the dangers of uranium mining. And on it goes.

So, the strange reality of cancer fighting truly reads like one of Kafka's nightmares. Most of the 100,000 chemicals commonly used in commerce have not been tested. Their proliferation in the workplace has created a cancer epidemic and a medical-business industry to treat it. Given the toxic nature of many cancer treatments, including radiation and chemotherapy, Davis claims that cancer researchers and cancer physicians are dying in record numbers.

Davis not only sheds light on this darkness, she also opens many hopeful doors. She celebrates tough, rural, blue-collar mothers who have taken on the companies that have riddled their children with cancer-makers. And she welcomes groups such as Health Care Without Harm, a novel coalition focused on getting toxic products out of hospitals.

But her remarkable and disturbing history ultimately illuminates another hidden hydrocarbon holocaust. Our frightful addiction to fossil fuels has not only fouled the atmosphere but given us a wealth of chemicals, plastics and technologies that increasingly undoes the health of millions with cancers. It, too, has given us rich armies of PR men employing "the same expert public relations strategies that kept us tied in knots on tobacco."

Davis knows that changing medical perspectives and priorities, from treatment to prevention, will be an enormous task. But she does not despair. In fact she ends her book with a simple Talmudic story. Faced with a complicated assignment, a group of workers rhyme off the usual excuses: They haven't got the tools or they haven't got the energy. But a good rabbi (sounding much like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings) sets them straight: "It is not for you to complete the task," he says. "But you must begin."

Davis's masterful book has shown us why we must begin rethinking cancer research and treatment now for our children's sake.


The book at The Secret History of the War on Cancer

To listen to an NPR interview with Dr. Devra Davis, click here: Devra Davis: Chemicals, Cancer and You


Andrew Nikiforuk has written extensively about the cancerous legacy of uranium and oil sands mining in northern Canada. He is the author of Pandemonium, about how global trade and climate change threaten food security.

* Correction by Andrew Nikiforuk: First the good news: Canadian comic Andrea Martin is alive and well. Now the bad news: I mistakenly buried her in the course of a book review (Malignancies - Books, Nov. 17). What I meant to say was that Andrea Ravinett Martin, the brave founder and former director of the Breast Cancer Fund and a woman with a good sense of humour, too, died of cancer.


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Although I'm sure that this book has a wealth of information on chemical causes of cancer, I'm not sure that I have the stomach to even read it. I was getting more depressed and upset just reading the review. Just from the little bit that I have gleaned from the internet on causes of cancer has kept me frightened. Yes, we use organic as much as possible, but we're not rich and we cannot buy everything organically. Nor can we avoid the environmental toxins. I understand that the book ends on a positive note saying that we can change things. But that will take generations. What about the health of ourselves and our children now? It almost seems better to just not read the book at all.

Knowledge, wisdom, and discernment are invaluable blessings that are given to us, but that's not to say they don't come at a cost. Their cost is a loss of our ignorance, and our ignorance is only bliss until the brick wall comes!

Oh please don't be depressed. I also favour the low-cost solutions. I shall be compiling a list of simple things we can do. In the meantime I try to lead as natural a life as possible eg we just drink water not soft drinks so avoid aspartame; Devra Davis in the NPR interview says she buys bulk baking soda for household cleaning.

There are several books to help eg


Toxic overload, Paula Baillie-Hamilton


Cleaning yourself to death, Pat Thomas

On the medical side, avoid the procedures Dr Davis mentions unless absolutely necessary.

You will find a solution for each problem one by one.

Yes, I got depressed reading it too. I'm a vegetarian, eat only organic foods but still cant avoid all these toxins that are killing us. We live in such a sick world where money is more important than people. : (

Robin, I tend to agree with your post. Words go straight to my heart when it comes to topics like cancer and I am too easily frightened as a consequence. I am close to making the decision not to have check-ups with my western medicine doctor anymore because she categorizes me via age bracket, not as an individual. And I've had wonderful results with acupuncture treatment from a Vietnamese doctor. I know several people who have good lives, cured by acupuncture, and no diagnosis of cancer and heart disease that they once had. And if I tell people this fact the chances are that I am regarded as a nutbar! It is wrong to paint entire professions, races, etc., with the same brush, but I am so close to giving up on western medicine as the saviour it purports to be - and actually feel that I am much safer avoiding it unless I have a fracture or serious infection that I cannot handle with my own skills.

I agree; one is much better off to educate oneself and not rely on the conventional so-called "health care" system. A hospital in the US is the last place I'd want to go in case of illness! Good food is good medicine, as is limiting the exposure to toxic substances, including most prescription drugs...

You are better off eating 100% fruits and veggies and cutting out dairy, meat, and wheat than the way you're eating now. Once you do that, the money you'll save can be split between buying some organic produce and buying this book and reading it. The lives you CAN affect are yours and your children's. Maybe you can't save the world, but if you save your family, and maybe a few friends and neighbors, and all of us who are conscious of this mess can do the same, then we'll have a revolution, especially if the adage about 6 Degrees of Separation is accurate! Do what you can, sister. Rather than be depressed about the many causes of cancer, know that you are doing your best not to add to your children's chances of getting it, and to their likelihood of getting rid of it if they do get it.

I completely agree with Robin. Why would I want to read how the industrial age is poisoning every living creature, including the earth? I have long grown tired of the 'pink ribbon' fund raising SCAM. I avoid all pink ribbon merchandising. They have raised billions and how much has actually gone to research?

The war on cancer is a tragedy: 1) billions upon billions of dollars are being spent to develop and apply treatments that are inadequate; 2) billionaire's life may be shortened by cancer.Normal cells become cancer cells because cellular iron overload affects organelles, DNA and chromosomes. Any cancer is always caused by iron-related genes (genes involved in iron metabolism / hereditary cancers) and iron-related events (when excessive iron accumulates within the cells, tissues, and organs due to various carcinogenic events / sporadic cancers). Iron chelation therapies will successfully beat inoperable tumors and detectable/undetectable micro-metastases because cancer cells are abnormal iron-rich (iron-saturated, iron-overloaded) cells.

Just want to tell you how much I appreciate your outlook on life and health. It's so easy to be overwhelmed by the flood of information and developments swirling around all of us. Your newsletter is a rock of sanity and goodwill. Thank you.

Learning how to prevent any type of cancer is so much more to the point. Why do we not study healthy people to learn why they DON'T have a disease? I have real concern for the rise of cancer in children related to the sonograms/ultrasounds done during pregnancy...sometimes just for the purpose of determining sex. If sound waves are strong enough to produce an image, could they not also damage fragile developing immune systems?

Dear Dr. KIM.... I enjoy your newsletter... I did want to comment on your article about cancer. You and I know that conventional alternatives to helping cancer patients must be done VERY CAREFULLY. I had Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma last year. There are many cancers that are fatal and CANNOT be cured by supplements and diet. My cancer could have killed me within months. Be careful advising people about their cancer treatments. I had 6 rounds of intense chemo and it was tough to get through but I'm alive and in remission... I was also told that this type of cancer is a predisposition to my DNA and now matter how healthy I tried to take care of my health over the years, I had no control over this. I'm sure you realize this. To many people are ready to sue you for bad information... Keep up your good work I enjoy your website.


I feel sorry for you for going through so much. Did any of these doctors told you about balancing your PH ?Did any of these wonderfull, knowing all doctors told you about acidic or alcaline body difference?
Do you know that in alcaline body cancer cells die? and it take about 10 days to get rid of any simple cancer just by alcalizing diet and suplementation?
I know it from experience and I throuly feel sorry for you. All this chemo will create more health problems for you in near future and the sad part of it is you are telling others how great it was. You didn't even look for alternatives and more information on the subject of health. Wish you all the best. Grace

You are perfectly accurate. The medical community avoids the issue of pH balance--it is not profitable for them. Sadly soo many people are frightened into doing
what the doctors want them to do instead of looking for outside influences and
possibilities. My mom, a former nurse, is now believing that she must take certain
heart pills EVERYDAY or she will die. I refuse to argue with her and she believes what her doctors (lie) tell her. Dr. Ornish in CA. has a clinic where he puts
patients on a vegan diet with exercise and meditation for just a few weeks and reverses their heart disease. Many of these patients were told by their doctors
that they either had irreversible heart disease, or, that they needed open heart
surgery or were too sick for an operation.
namaste', rachel

I have no doubt most of the information in this book is accurate. Obviously it is written from a biased viewpoint. A recent book with another history of cancer from an oncologist's perspective is titled The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer and it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.