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February 13, 2005

Cancer, politics, ecology

On Thursday when I was in Canberra I noticed that the Senate had agreed to set up an inquiry into cancer treatment in Australia by the Community Affairs References Committee, which will look at the various options for cancer treatment in Australia. This provides a venue for authentic deliberation within the formal institutions of the state.


Hopefully, the inquiry will also look into the causes of this disease, since the why question is a very important one. Information about the causes of cancer in Australia should be publicly available, given that around one-half of all the world's cancers occur among people living in industrialized countries, even though such people are only one-fifth of the world's population. We need a three-part inquiry: a looking into past exposures, a reassessing of the present situation including the various treatment options and imagining an alternative future.

Hopefully, the Senate inquiry will explore the first two parts and begin to tackle 'the talk about cancer' in terms of social medicine: as a medical discourse and the oppositional allied health ones; instead of an aggregation of individual public opinions in the public sphere outside the institutions of the state.

I first become aware of the importance of the why question from reading Sandra Steingraber's book Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment several years ago. It's a very good book. Do read it, if you can, as it questions the rigid assumptions of the cancer establishment in a way that makes sense to those living downstream of the Murray-Darling River system, as I do.

We should thank Senator Peter Cook for his efforts to establish the Senate inquiry. As far as I could see this event was not reported in the media. So the many kinds of silences that surround cancer issues-personal and political, individual and collective-continues. However, Alan Ramsay in the Sydney Morning Herald picks up what Senator Cook had to say, and provides the background.

It really is about time this inquiry happened.

Cancer is a big killer in Australia. One in three Australian men and one in four Australian women will develop cancer before the age of 75.Over a quarter of all deaths each year in Australia are due to cancer. Though our current knowledge suggests that least one third of all cancers are preventable (eg., those caused by smoking and damaging levels of sun exposure) there is is a growing awareness that many cancers are caused by the pollutants, pesticides and toxic chemicals in our environment.

The causal role of environmental pollutants (PCBs, DDT, and DDE (a DDT breakdown product) is rarely mentioned in Australia, even though these organochlorine pesticides (products of the chemical industry) are increasingly in our bodies.

Maybe the Senate inquiry will provide a political space for the many stories to be told; will enable Australians to become better informed about the link between toxic chemicals, body burdens and cancer; and give them the information they need to start making some noise.So many Australians are being amputated, irradiated and dosed with chemotherapy. They--and they are unknowns--expire privately in hospitals and hospices and are buried quietly.

In his statement Senator Cook said that the inquiry into services available to cancer patients and into treatment options, including less conventional therapies, is aimed at practical help for the one in four Australian families hit by cancer that causes enormous peronal suffering. He adds:

Specialist health care [here] is among the best in the world. But there is a bewildering number of adjuvant therapies and less conventional approaches which offer varying degrees of help, some overstated, some not, which can be significant if not decisive. Doctors tend to stick with proven treatments, whereas patients are often desperately looking for the most promising options to improve their odds. This dichotomy and the dismissive attitude conventional medicine often exhibits towards less conventional treatments can leave patients worried and confused.

It is about time this door was opened up on the medical cancer establishment's governance of cancer, because cancer cells are mostly created, not born. Families share environments as well as chromosomes, as our genes work in communion with substances streaming in from the larger, ecological world. Hence the modern biomedical trend to focus on the genetic causes of cancer, is a sidepath. We should be looking at the toxic world we live in.

Senator Cook then addresses the politics of cancer treatment:

The health debate is understandably dominated by doctors, heath-care professionals, health bureaucrats and academics, all with the apparent needs of the patient at heart but with transparent self-interests of their own. If this inquiry can stand in the shoes of patients and unambiguously take their point of view, it will be a breath of fresh air.

Most of the medical research by the medical establishment is basic scientific research at the cellular and molecular levels, which is done in an effort to detect, diagnose, and treat disease. Apart from smoking and sun screen little effort is being devoted to prevention by reducing our exposures to cancer-causing chemicals in our air,water, and food.

It is sad to report but the powerful cancer medical establishment continues to deny the importance of environmental factors and that view continues to be perpetuated. It is stated that only two percent of cancer deaths are due to environmental causes. But how many Australians is that? Is it more than more than the number of women who die each year from hereditary breast cancer? Is it more than the number of nonsmokers estimated to die each year of lung cancer caused by passive exposure to secondhand smoke in pubs, bars and resturants?


Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 13, 2005 09:22 AM

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» Cancer, ecology, politics from Australian Opinion
Gary Sauer-Thompson at Public Opinion writes: "On Thursday when I was in Canberra I noticed that the Senate had agreed to set up an inquiry into cancer treatment in Australia by the Community Affairs References Committee. Thankfully, it will look at... [Read More]

Tracked on February 13, 2005 12:38 PM

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Tracked on February 15, 2005 12:34 PM


On Saturday mornings I make breakfast then eat it while reading Alan Ramsay followed by the Letters to the Editor.

As a cancer survivor (well, so far anyway), I am very grateful to Ramsay for this particular article. And like you, I am disappointed that it doesn't seem to have appeared in any other media source.

I have recently returned to vegetarianism which has in turn made me more careful of what I (and my family) eat. During the last school holidays I made a study of the chemicals and additives in children's 'food' (using an additive code breaker) such as potato crisps, muesli bars, peanut butter etc. and was shocked at some of the ingredients used. The food manufacturing (isn't that a contradiction in terms!) lobby must be very strong to get away with what they do - the code book I was using was ten years old and many of the additives were shown as being banned in Australia. I checked with various authorities and found the restrictions had been lifted.

If there is relationship between all the chemicals used in food growing, processing etc (plus all those in hair shampoos and similar products) then cancer rates are going to go skyhigh.

On a closing note I cannot recommend more highly that ALL men 45 and over visit their GP and have a simple PSA blood test for prostate cancer. It saved my life.

Posted by: Ron at February 13, 2005 12:34 PM


there is a lot of noise about cancer but there is a silence as well.

This American review of Sandra Steingraber's 'Living Downstream' links to your remarks about food. It says:

"Startlingly, the standards for the levels of chemicals allowed in our food and water are not health-based. "Tolerances" for pesticide residues in food are set at the greatest concentrations likely to be found "under normal agriculture practice," and 35% of food consumed in the United States contains detectable levels of pesticides."

Hence our bodies are burdened with pesticide residues from the accumulation of toxins that begins with mothers breast milk.

I an concerned about the silence re the environmental origins of cancer because as I live in Adelaide, so I live downstream of the Murray Darling river system.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 13, 2005 07:40 PM

gary , unfortunately i can,t offer you a lot of hope from upstream . while recently out in an orchard on the great northern riverine plain, i could hear a "crop duster" spray plane working ; probably at least a 3 or 4 k's away as i could not see it behind the tree line . it was SW and so was the fairly strong wind . probably half an hour later or thereabouts i received a couple of very strong WHIFFS of spray chemical . i hate to think how far it drifted . I am glad the family wasn't there. makes me wonder why i gave up smoking . good on you ron . ps. glad peter costello apologised to cornelia, he also marched in the Aboriginal Reconciliation event a couple of years ago .

Posted by: kartiya at February 14, 2005 11:17 PM

yes. Several years ago I read reports of this happening in the cotton fields in NSW. The families living nearby were becoming sick from the chemicals in the air.

Little is done about this practice by the authorities as it works within "acceptable risk". The families are basically told to move on. Nothing should stand in the way of agricultural production. The line is that you must adjust to a damaged environment and live with it.

There is ariel spraying is also happening in Tasmania. The medical profession there is aware of it's effects on our bodies, but they do not support the individual doctors who have the courage to speak out about what they are seeing in their clinics. I guess the standard scientific /medical position in Australia, as in the US, is to denigrate the cancer-environment connection.

What Steingraber said was happening in the US is happening here though on a smaller scale.

The real danger is long term, as the chemicals enter the soil, water, and food chain; and then into our bodies. Hence Sandra Steingraber's idea of body burden as the link between toxicity, the environment and cancer.

There is an increase of cancer incidence over time. Between 1950 and 1991, the incidence of cancer, excluding lung cancer and melanoma of the skin has risen in the last two decades, and it has affected all age groups, from infants to the elderly.

The link between cancer and environmental factors has not been investigated in any systematic, exhaustive way during the past three decades,in terms of spatial spread or occupation.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 15, 2005 05:08 AM

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