The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis

I’m halfway through Devra Lee Davis‘s The Secret History of the War on Cancer.

I heard about it through this October 2007 New York Times review of The Secret History of the War on Cancer (I also read the other book reviewed in this article — Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body by Jennifer Ackerman — and found it captivating and educational! Ackerman uses a scintillating title to catch your attention and writes expertly about different parts/systems of the human body with a focus on chronobiology, spending just a few pages on each topic.) and finally decided to read it after I read an article about cancer prevention in the Nov 1, 2007 issue of the Economist.

While Davis is clearly passionate about her topic, her writing leaves something to be desired (like me — a fellow scientist — Davis uses far too many words when she could convey the same meaning/information in a more simple and elegant manner) and she also frequently repeats herself.

Still, I have learned so much from this book. Davis, Director of the Center of Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, argues that our country’s $40 billion “war on cancer” has focused too much on treatment and largely ignored prevention due to the heavy handed tactics of large industrial companies and their economic interests. The result: at least 10 million preventable cancer deaths over the past thirty years.

I get the feeling this book doesn’t present new information, but simply puts together publicly available information. Still, I was unfamiliar with most of the information in this book. Here are a few of the surprising facts:

  • As early as the 1930s, the world’s leading cancer scientists determined that tobacco, radiation, asbestos, arsenic, benzene, chlorine, other chemicals, and estrogen and other hormones caused cancer. World War II and its focus on immediate survival and the growth of chemical industries sidetracked these early findings of cancer hazards for decades.
  • Germany was a forerunner in cancer research and organic farming. Unfortunately, World War II and the desire to discredit and forget German science from that period also contributed to our early knowledge of the causes of cancer to be lost for decades.
  • After World War II, many of the leading scientists doing cancer research were being paid by tobacco companies (and other companies whose success came from producing cancer-causing chemicals) and kept their results private as “trade secrets.”
  • In the late 1960s, the United States spent $30 million of taxpayer money to create a “safer cigarette” even though most scientists were sure there could not be such a thing and even if it was possible the tobacco companies themselves should have paid for such research & development.
  • The life-saving simple test for cervix cancer (the Pap smear), was not put into use for more than a decade after it was shown to save lives, because of fears that it would undermine the private practice of medicine (Pap smears can be taken and interpreted easily by technicians without a medical degree). These delays led to the deaths of thousands of women who would have survived had the Pap smear been universally accepted sooner.
  • Many personal care products (lotions, nail polishes, hair products, etc) contain hormones and/or chemicals that act like hormones.
  • In 1993, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. that laid out four tests for judges to use in deciding whether science is admissible. In effect, the Court ruled experimental studies in animals as irrelevant to human harm and that only large amounts of hard evidence of sick or deformed humans in published studies would constitute proof of human hazard. Click here for an analysis of this ruling.
  • In terms of radiation dose, a typical chest CT scan is equivalent to 400 chest x-rays!
  • Ritalin, frequently prescribed for ADHD, damages DNA and may lead to an increased risk of cancer.

I will write more when I finish the book.

In the meantime, check out the author’s website, particularly this gallery of images from The Secret History of the War on Cancer, and the Center of Environmental Oncology‘s website on this book and this Q&A with Devra Davis on the NYTimes.com Freakonomics blog.

Then, next up is A New Earth: awakening to your life’s purpose by Eckhart Tolle!

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4 responses to “The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis

  1. Pingback: The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis « Adventures in Reading

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  4. Pingback: Anticancer: A New Way of Life « Adventures in Reading

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