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The American
Cancer Society:

Preventing Cancer or
Protecting Big Business?

by Lauren Elaine Berk
art/Eric Spitler

Uncounted numbers of American men and women die every year from preventable cancers. Their deaths are the direct result of the politically governed policies of major health institutions such as the American Cancer Society. The ACS refuses to make any potentially damaging statements against hazardous agents unless they have been proven to cause cancer in humans. This policy is maintained at the expense of everyday people who cannot possibly understand that their lives are put at risk because the ACS wants to avoid an industrial witch-hunt. The ACS is speaking to the people it pretends to serve through its actions, and it is saying that the economic interests of major chemical corporations are more important than human lives.

The fascination of the ACS with money encompasses even more corruption. The ACS operated on a budget of over $500 million in 1998, and only 63% percent of that money was spent battling cancer. The remainder went to management, general administration, and more fundraising. Well, not all of the remainder. The ACS has made contributions to the Republican National Committee on more than one occasion. Over $15,000 was given in 1998 alone. That's fifteen thousand dollars of someone's hard-earned money; someone who na´vely assumed the ACS would use the money for research. Instead, the ACS gave the money to a political party in direct violation of its tax status as a non-profit organization. It should be noted that the ACS strongly denies ever having made any such contributions, stating, "we have not nor will we ever support partisan political parties." Instead, the ACS claims, the contributions were probably made to encourage or sponsor "voter registration, candidate questionnaires, or political forums." Why the ACS feels the need to involve itself in Republican politics remains unexplained. Furthermore, the lack of any contributions to other political parties casts doubts upon the sincerity of the ACS to increase voter awareness.

The ACS also seems to forget that it's trying to remind people of something they witness all too often. One out of every four Americans will die from cancer, so there aren't many people who ignore the issue. These horrific statistics are further intensified by the apparent lack of concern of the ACS in cancer prevention. Its literature dealing with prevention contains information on early detection, but as Dr. John W. Gofman, Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California-Berkeley, states, "[Early detection], of course, has nothing to do with the PREVENTION of...cancer. It has to do with the detection of a problem NOT prevented." What little information the ACS does provide about prevention focuses on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Occupational hazards are virtually ignored and often trivialized. What makes this seem all the more ridiculous is that no one is truly sure what causes cancer; there are several feasible explanations for each specific type. For the ACS to assume that a lifestyle maintained by millions of people in one nation is the direct cause of a worldwide phenomenon is outlandish and insulting to Americans. The ACS is trying to put a Band-Aid* on a gunshot wound.

The continued emphasis on early detection, however, may be causing more harm than good. The ACS recommends receiving one mammogram annually from ages 40 to 90. According to Dr. Gofman, even someone who started at age fifty and only received fifteen mammograms would still have a 1 in 136 chance of developing radiation-induced breast cancer. This statistic, while seemingly insignificant, demands closer attention. Try explaining to the child of a deceased mother that her case was not important because it was only 1 out of 136. A life is a life.

Once again, the ACS has trivialized the importance of American lives. The ACS might argue that the risk of mammograms is far out-weighed by the potential benefits, such as early detection. Detecting breast cancer early decreases the risk of lymph node involvement, and this in turn increases chances for survival. Yet mammograms are notoriously difficult to interpret, providing false negatives as often as false positives. Baseline scans in particular are useless (due to the extremely dense nature of the tissue at younger ages), although the ACS fails to recognize the potential harm it may cause young, uninformed women.

There are few alternatives to mammograms, especially for young, poor women. One test involves using a special pad placed over the breast to detect increased temperature, which is supposedly a potential sign of breast cancer. This test has been used in South America, but it lacks solid clinical data to support even the principal behind it. The best alternative to mammography is probably an ultrasound of the breast tissue, which provides a highly detailed picture of the tissue even at young ages. Having a manual exam administered by a medical professional is another perfectly safe alternative, although most doctors will recommend a mammogram if anything unusual is felt.

The ACS is particularly hesitant to endorse the use of such alternatives. This hesitancy is darkened by DuPont's financial support of the ACS Breast Health Awareness Program. DuPont is a major industrial company that manufactures, among other things, imaging enhancers that help increase the ability of mammograms to detect tumors in dense tissue. Without the success of mammography, this portion of DuPont's revenue would disappear. So whom is the ACS protecting when it supports mammography? This question should be examined carefully in light of such thinly veiled bribery.

A significant portion of society remains underserved despite the eagerness of the ACS to laud early detection in the form of mammography. Poor, uninsured women are unlikely to spend several hundred dollars for a diagnostic test every year, but programs providing aid to this segment of society are rare. The ACS explains that several states fund their own programs, so they don't want to "double-up" such reduced-cost or free coverage. This explanation appears to make the ACS look pragmatic, but it also casts suspicious shadows. Every time an underprivileged woman takes advantage of such an opportunity to receive a free or reduced-cost mammogram, hospitals and major corporations lose money. Thus every time the ACS fails to encourage underprivileged women to receive mammograms through special programs, they are protecting the interests of major corporations rather than those of the American people. Furthermore, the explanation just doesn't make sense if the ACS is pretending to extol the benefits and importance of early detection. If early detection were so important, why wouldn't the ACS want to make it available to as many people as possible? The ACS maintains that state-sponsored programs reach any women who are in need of reduced-cost or free mammograms. Yet the ACS has done nothing to help pay for such programs despite having insisted on their necessity. In California, the ACS relies on the philanthropy of the state and other organizations dedicated to battling breast cancer to provide oncological health-care for underprivileged women.

In addition to an apparent lack of concern for cancer prevention, the nonchalant attitude of the ACS concerning the denouncement of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) has jeopardized lives. In some instances, the ACS has promoted the use of carcinogens. The ACS and the Chlorine Institute issued a joint statement in 1992 that actually promoted the continued use of organochlorine pesticides, some of which have been known to cause cancer. Chlordane is a perfect example of such organochlorine pesticides. It is still used for fire ant control in power transformers, but the rest of its uses have been banned since 1988. Yet chlordane remains in our food supply due to the high solubility of organochlorines in fat. Over time, it accumulates and causes even more damage. Nonetheless, the ACS supported the use of similar organochlorines. When such actions are considered, it becomes more and more apparent whose interests the ACS is protecting.

The 1992 statement also rationalized the frightening coincidence of increased pesticide use and increased breast cancer rates, declaring "much of the recent rise in incidence [of breast cancer] in the United States...reflects increased utilization of mammography over the past decade." If a woman were going to develop breast cancer, she would develop it with or without a diagnostic test. In other words, even without a mammogram, the woman's breast cancer would still develop and eventually it could be diagnosed without the use of a mammogram. Thus the incidence of breast cancer before widespread use of mammography should be the same as after its implementation. The reason it hasn't is hotly debated amongst medical professionals. Very few, however, uphold that increased use of mammograms as diagnostic tests have increased the incidence of breast cancer. Such ridiculous assertions demonstrate the willingness of the ACS to insult and injure the American people.

The amount of damage the ACS has done, however, is unknown. Statistics concerning preventable cancers are limited, and most associations aren't interested in counting the number of people they couldn't save. Further complicating matters, no one can really pinpoint which cancers or which cases could have been prevented. Those who have died as a result of exposure to proven human carcinogens can be counted, but there hasn't been enough research on suspected carcinogens to show what levels of toxicity induce cancer. That means that no one is really sure how much exposure a human can withstand before developing cancer. So when a person dies and has been exposed to a potential carcinogen, who's to say that it wasn't really genetically induced or the tragic result of fate? The ACS can, for now, rely on this uncertainty to cloak their inaction.

Until more people protest the corruption of the ACS, such inaction will continue to shortchange the millions of American people who believe their money and time are promoting an honest organization. Rather, these Americans are supporting an association that donates to political parties and refuses to place the rights of major corporations subjacent to those of its own patrons. Anyone particularly interested in supporting cancer research should specify on any checks or direct donations that the money is to be used for research only. Otherwise, the money is more likely to be spent on overhead, or worse yet, as contributions to political parties. The Cancer Prevention Coalition (CPC) accepts donations and has also advocated for an economic boycott of the ACS. The CPC has also questioned the integrity of the National Cancer Institute, but found that the federal government has paid for all administrative costs of the NCI, so any donations to this organization must go directly to research. In any case, choosing to support the ACS at this moment is questionable at best. Considering that the ACS has chosen to disregard federal laws concerning the status of non-profit organizations, it cannot be guaranteed that they would obey laws concerning the destination of donations specified for research.

What is perhaps the most appalling aspect of the corruption of the ACS is that it has, in some instances, promoted the use of known human carcinogens. There is no explanation for such behavior. The ACS cannot justify endorsing the use of chemicals simply because speaking out against them might damage their credibility. If the ACS continues to gear its policy toward the interests of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the American people will realize it. Before long, there might not be much of a reputation to defend.

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