Submitted Date 04/04/2019

Off the top of your head, I bet you can name at least three cancer cure-focused organizations. The effort to cure cancer is a multi-billion dollar industry. One of the most infamous examples is the Susan G. Komen for the Cure charity that came under fire in 2012 for paying its executives in the six-figure range (well, it was because they pulled funding from Planned Parenthood, but their salaries were brought into the conversation). Whether the organization and others like it can justify these salaries isn’t really the issue here, but rather than finding a “cure” is big money.

A 2014 estimate by the American Cancer Society counts patients diagnosed with cancer in the millions. For those people, a cure is literally a matter of life and death. Personally, I have lost a lot of my family to the disease and I’m dreading the day when I too have to hear a doctor tell me that I’ll be joining them. What cancer does to its victims, their families, and even our economy is no laughing matter and I’m not making light of it.

I just don’t think that finding a cure is the best place for us all to focus. I also think this idea hasn’t escaped those companies who are making billions from the cancer cure industry. We, as a society, spend so much time, money, and effort looking for a solution in the wrong place. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I believe that, to a great extent, it’s deliberate misdirection.

Where we should be looking instead is at prevention. Yes, there’s a lot of talk about getting regular exams, having healthy habits, and catching the disease before it develops. That’s not really so much prevention in my mind as it is early detection. It’s also putting the impetus on us as individuals to take an active role, vaguely implying that, if we do get cancer, it’s our fault for not paying closer attention. Early detection and a healthy lifestyle are certainly great habits to get into, but still not what the bigger picture is about.

Prevention is eliminating the causes of cancer in the first place. We know what causes cancer. At least, we know about a lot of the things that cause cancer. Cigarettes are one source that immediately springs to mind. Another estimate, also from the American Cancer Society, says that “…each year smoking causes about 1 out of 5 deaths in the US.” If there was a maniac out there, shooting every fifth person they came across, we’d be quick to exterminate that person. So why aren’t we doing the same to cigarettes? Easy answer: the worldwide tobacco industry makes nearly half a trillion dollars a year.

There’s also a culprit not many people have heard of called POPs. POP stands for Persistent Organic Pollutants and they include things like DDT (a chemical used to control mosquitos) and PCBs (an industrial chemical used in paint, copy paper, and plastics). They are called persistent because they do not break down in the environment. They are also bioaccumulated, meaning that, if a fish gets contaminated with a POP and then gets eaten by a seal, that seal becomes contaminated. That seal will retain the contamination from every fish it eats until it’s eaten by something like a polar bear or a killer whale. Then, that animal becomes contaminated by all the seals it eats. So, by the time we get to the top of the food chain, the levels of POPs are really high.

To quote the World Health Organization, “POPs can be found virtually everywhere on our planet in measurable concentrations.” The laundry list of health problems caused by POPs includes birth defects, reproductive disorders, altered immune systems, and - you guessed it - cancer. Where do these POPs come from? You can find them in fireworks, rubber, ammunition, paint, cash register receipts…the sources are numerous, but the biggest is pesticides. Obviously, pesticides are sprayed on crops to fight insects. But then what? Not only are the crops harvested and sent to your local grocery store, but the runoff ends up in streams and the spray kills the bees we rely on to have crops in the first place.

There have been notable efforts to curb POPs, we’re not ignoring the problem completely. The Stockholm Convention was a big step forward. The North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation, the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, and the Rotterdam Convention, are all global and local efforts to curb the use of some cancer-causing chemicals. However, if you’re Big Ag, Big Pharma, or Big Oil, there are workarounds, lawyers to tie up enforcement, lobbyists to influence policymakers, and other poisons to switch to.

Cancer sucks. Nobody wants that diagnosis. But, instead of pouring our resources into cleaning up after the fact, what if we put them into fighting the things that cause it in the first place? We are being poisoned every day by things as seemingly innocuous as a cash register receipt but aren’t even aware of it, let alone trying to stop it. I have the benefit of having my eyes opened because I’ve studied the environment, chemicals, and policies. But, unless you’ve chosen that path, you may not have ever been given the information.

It is exceptionally hard to look at a patient with cancer and point to one habit or one source as the cause. It would be virtually impossible to record every substance we come into contact with each day. It is, however, much easier to test a chemical and determine it isn’t safe. Preventing the use of those chemicals, seeking out solutions to replace them, and coming up with real, enforceable restrictions on the use of them is vastly more imperative, in my mind, than letting big industry give us cancer and trying to heal ourselves after the fact.


Want to learn more about Rachel Carson, POPs, or how to fight them? Here are a few resources:

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Center for Environmental Health (www.ceh.org)

American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org)

World Health Organization (www.who.int)

Safe Drinking Water Foundation (www.safewater.org)


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