After losing both of her parents to cancer, Devra Davis merged her roles as scientist, researcher and investigative reporter to wage war on the cancer war itself. According to Davis, millions of lives, including those of her parents, could have been spared if not for our nation's misguided war on cancer -- which, she writes, has been fighting "the wrong battles with the wrong weapons and the wrong leaders" since President Nixon officially launched it more than 35 years ago.
In her new book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer (Basic Books), Davis, who heads the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh, unveils the ignorance and corruption that have plagued cancer research, with its focus on treating the disease rather than preventing it. Davis weaves touching personal stories with research and statistics about the environmental causes of cancer, from industry smokestacks to household cosmetics.
Among her claims: The evidence that vinyl chloride -- commonly used in hairsprays in the 1970s -- was as poisonous as the chlorine gas used during World War I was for years relentlessly suppressed and dismissed as inconclusive by cosmetic companies, resulting in disease and death in both factory workers and consumers. Elsewhere, Davis questions some studies on the dangers of cell-phone use, which were conducted by researchers funded by the industry. The Secret History of the War on Cancer, released in October to positive reviews, also reveals that one highly acclaimed study, which found no link between cell phones and brain cancer, ignored vital study subjects by labeling a "cell-phone user" as "anyone who made a single phone call a week for six months" between 1981 and 1995. According to Davis, the study dismissed anyone who used cell phones for business purposes.
She recently spoke with City Paper.
How has the book been received?
I've been really gratified and somewhat surprised. What's really gratifying to me is the number of colleagues in radiology who are very glad I've written this book, because they're concerned about the overuse of radiology.
The predictable attacks have been there, but they've come from this group called the American Council on Science and Health, which sounds innocuous, but they are extensively supported by the chemical industry.
Some old comments were recycled from a guy in California named Dr. Bruce Ames, who obviously hadn't read the book. He was quoted as saying that I was ignoring the major risks like smoking and sunlight. As you know, the book is extensively about smoking and sunlight. He was just assuming.
You write that around the time of World War II, many researchers were beginning to study what causes cancer. How might things have been different if these discoveries were made at a less volatile time?
That's an interesting question, and I don't think we can answer it in sort of a woulda, shoulda, coulda. The reality is, the world went to war and on some level we haven't really gotten off the war-time footing. If you're worried that you might be killed at any moment, and you see a terrorist lurking everywhere, then you don't think about the long term. That approach is unfortunately still with us.
Whom do you blame most for our inability to focus on causes of cancer?
There is a [comic-strip] character named Pogo, who doesn't exist anymore, but at one point he had a very profound little statement: "We've met the enemy, and it's us." We go to doctors thinking they will give us a pill to cure us. ... The acceptance of illness as an inevitable curse from God or fate, that's a very powerful part of our culture. ... Rather than blaming a person or an institution, I think it's the entire culture which has had us accept the notion that you can't control your health. That is fundamentally the problem, because we now know there is a lot you can do.
And then if you add to that the fact that industries, like the tobacco industry and the chemical industry, were heavily involved in running the beginning of the war on cancer, then of course they weren't too interested in figuring out how to control asbestos or benzene.
How much is money a factor?
Money makes the world go 'round. And money also sponsors research. We have to figure out new economic incentives to pay to prevent cancer as much as it pays to treat it. It's not going to be easy, because if you have a heart attack or you have chemotherapy, you're contributing to the economy by consuming medical services. We've got to figure out a way ... to invest in prevention and understand that some of the things we value in our economy may not be as valued if we think about their long-term effects for our public health.
Do you expect any political action as a result of your book?
I've had conversations with some members of Congress, and I expect that there'll be some congressional hearings on some of the issues that are raised in the book.
I think you will soon be seeing some action on the overuse of CT scans, because it's a big problem and a number of members of Congress are concerned about that. Right now, members of Congress are passing various proposals to increase authority, recognizing that [the Food and Drug Administration] has failed to provide adequate surveillance for personal-care products and contaminants.
Regarding the environmental causes of cancer, how does Pennsylvania compare to other regions?
Pennsylvania, because it has its fair share of polluting factories and decaying industries, I think has a very similar profile to any industrial area. But there are a set of tradeoffs, because we need steel. We need to be smarter about where we locate factories and where we locate people. There is a place I just visited where there is a poor black community that's 25 feet away from a barrel-reprocessing plant that's taking in toxic materials. That doesn't make sense. None of us wants to shut down modern society, but we certainly recognize that there are certain decisions that have been made in the past that don't look very smart today. We can be smarter now.
- On guard: Devra Davis