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The Secret History of the War on Cancerby Devra Davis
"[T]here is not much that is secret about this 'secret history.' Nor is Davis's book even a history, in the sense of conveying a systematic, coherent narrative of events related to the fight against cancer over time. While the overall organizational structure of the book is unclear, it certainly is not a chronological record of events related to battling cancer. Neither is it a critical examination of the origins of President Nixon's 'War on Cancer' and its subsequent evolution; nor does it track how thinking about the causes, the treatment, or the prevention of distinct cancers has evolved over time. In fact, it is unclear what exactly Davis is up to, other than trying to stoke unfocused fear about the oncological consequences of the environment." Ezekiel J. Emanuel, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
From the National Book Award finalist and author of When Smoke Ran Like Water, a searing, haunting and deeply personal account of the War on Cancer.
The War on Cancer set out to find, treat, and cure a disease. Left untouched were many of the things known to cause cancer, including tobacco, the workplace, radiation, or the global environment. Proof of how the world in which we live and work affects whether we get cancer was either overlooked or suppressed.
This has been no accident.
The War on Cancer was run by leaders of industries that made cancer-causing products, and sometimes also profited from drugs and technologies for finding and treating the disease. Filled with compelling personalities and never-before-revealed information, The Secret History of the War on Cancer shows how we began fighting the wrong war, with the wrong weapons, against the wrong enemies — a legacy that persists to this day.
This is the gripping story of a major public health effort diverted and distorted for private gain.
A portion of the profits from this book will go to support research on cancer prevention.
"In 1900, infectious diseases were the leading cause of death in the United States; in our current age of pasteurized milk and purified water, this is no longer the case. The focus now has shifted to the chronic maladies of aging — cancer, heart disease and stroke. Tens of billions of dollars are being thrown into crusades against these killers, with the so-called 'war on cancer' capturing the lion's... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) share of media space and public concern. Some experts see it as a model of medical progress; others take a dimmer view. Perhaps the most critical voice belongs to Devra Davis, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of 'When Smoke Ran Like Water,' an acclaimed history of environmental pollution. Davis' latest work took 20 years to complete. 'The Secret History of the War on Cancer' is a book with few real secrets but plenty of gossip, speculation and preachy advice. Still, there is much in this overlong account that deserves a serious hearing. For Davis, the war on cancer 'has been fighting many of the wrong battles with the wrong weapons and the wrong leaders.' The result, she contends, has been the needless loss of 'at least a million and a half lives.' How she arrives at this figure is never explained. What is clear, however, is that Davis thinks cancer can best be fought by focusing on its root causes, rather than on its treatment or its cure. Our failure to follow this path, she says, is the result of an unholy alliance among greedy corporations, corrupt philanthropies, compromised medical researchers and spineless government agencies — all helping to obscure the truth about why people get cancer, and who is to blame. Davis comes by her suspicions naturally. She grew up in Donora, Pa., a gritty steel town that made headlines in 1948 when a smoggy haze killed 20 of its residents. She writes powerfully about the toll that cancer has taken among her friends and family, many of whom, she believes, were victims of the thousands of chemicals that mark our industrial age. Davis, whose research combines a sprinkling of industry archives with a mass of secondary sources, provides an excellent summary of environmental cancer research in the 20th century, noting that as early as the 1930s scientists understood that working conditions, radiation, nutrition, hormones and even sunlight could trigger the disease, and that chemicals such as benzene, synthetic dyes and asbestos were carcinogens. Ironically, much of the data came from Nazi Germany, where authorities campaigned against tobacco and experimented with organic vegetables in an attempt to further purify the 'master race.' With the end of World War II, according to Davis, a dramatic shift occurred. At the very time cancer rates were climbing, scientific investigation into its likely causes reached a dead end. In particular, she writes, information on 'the cancer hazards of the workplace and the environment' were disparaged or ignored, while studies about the treatment of cancer were lavishly funded and publicized. How did this happen? The answer, says Davis, can be traced to the deep pockets of corporate America, which spent billions of dollars over the years to stifle honest debate about the dangers of chemicals and tobacco — and billions more to hype the 'cancer-curing' wonders of medical technologies and drugs. For the corporations, this was money well spent. It allowed them to earn huge profits by producing both the cancer-causing chemicals and the anti-cancer drugs. They became the real directors of the war on cancer, says Davis, by establishing institutes to influence federal policy, infiltrating groups like the American Cancer Society, and funneling grants to supposedly disinterested scientists — what Davis calls 'the revolving door of cancer researchers in and out of cancer-causing industries.' While much of this may sound familiar to a moderately informed reader, David puts it together in a way that illuminates the underbelly of medical research. There is, however, an odd feeling to this book, a sense that Davis has come to view an enormously complicated endeavor in increasingly conspiratorial terms. She writes about being 'stunned' and 'shocked' about the misdeeds she has uncovered, and claims to 'have learned from others, whom I can't name at this point, that the files of many large multinational businesses could easily tell us about many more health risks.' Those who question her assessments — and the ranks are legion — are portrayed as disingenuous or corrupt. Her book's final pages are so crammed with ominous warnings about modern life — cellphones, mammograms, Ritalin and 100,000 or so common chemicals yet to be studied — that one yearns for the simpler days of rodents and plagues. It's hard to separate the vital points Davis is making about environmental pollution from her relentless assault upon a corporate-medical-scientific cabal that she insists is going to poison us all. Still, the best watchdogs are often the most obsessive, using shock and alarm as a prelude to discussion. And for many readers of 'The Secret History of the War on Cancer,' I suspect, Devra Davis is a natural for this role. David Oshinsky, a professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin, won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in History for 'Polio: An American Story.'" Reviewed by David Oshinsky, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[G]rim but fascinating reading....Davis proposes a kind of truth-and-reconciliation approach to get industry and public-health experts mutually involved. But she notes that, unfortunately, it's simply not happening fast enough....One can hope, however, that Davis's book will assure that proper attention is paid." Kirkus Reviews
"Davis writes with passion, driven by the conviction that premature deaths among her family members resulted from exposure to industrial toxins....Davis presents a powerful call to action; recommended." Library Journal
From the National Book Award finalist, author of When Smoke Ran Like Water, a searing, haunting and deeply personal account of the War on Cancer
About the Author
Devra Davis, Ph.D., M.P.H., is the Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. She was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in 1994 and also served as Scholar in Residence at the National Academy of Science. She lives in Pittsburgh.
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