It is depressing that, despite some improvements in cancer therapy, overall cancer mortality rates increased by 10 percent during the past decade. Although we are saving more cancer victims than ever before, even more people are contracting the disease with the result that the overall incidence of cancer is increasing by as much as 2 percent per annum.
If this cancer rate increase continues, cancer incidence will double within the next 35 years. This hardly constitutes a “war on cancer”; more appropriately we should think of it as a “war on people.” All of us are soldiers in this war. We think we are living protected lives, when in reality we are all like Marines storming the beaches of Normandy, more of us succumbing each year than in the year before.
Why are cancer mortality incidence rates on the increase? Why are we losing the war on cancer?
Armand Hammer, president of Occidental Petroleum, recently offer $1 million to the scientist who finds a cure for cancer comparable to the Salk vaccine for polio. This is good business for Dr. Hammer. He’ll never have to pay up, and it keeps public attention on cancer cures instead of cancer prevention, for cancer prevention means public avoidance of carcinogenic substances, such as those dumped into Love Canal by Hooker Chemical Co., a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum.
Although we have much to learn about the enemy in our war on cancer, we do know enough to make some strategic decisions that will give us the upper hand. Take lung cancer, for example. This disease kills more than 100,000 Americans annually and has a very poor cure rate. We know it occurs much more frequently among workers who are exposed to asbestos or such chemicals as bis(chloromethyl) ether, who work in coke ovens or who breathe radon gas in uranium mines. There is no reason to suspect that these same agents, polluting the air outside the workplace, are any less dangerous, except for their dilution.
Cancer is an insidious disease affecting and killing more of us each year. The war on cancer must be fought on two fronts with renewed emphasis on silencing the “guns” that produce carcinogenic substances and emit them into our environment. As for the second front, most of us are doing what we can.