What caused my cancer?
Sure, I’ve wondered that. I’ve even speculated in writing. But I’ve asked my doctors on multiple occasions and the answer is universally, “nothing.” It was a spontaneous mutation, and that’s that. Sure, there are certain things you do in life that can affect your risk of cancer, but I’m pretty healthy and 25. I’m not gonna waste my time searching for culprits.
But I came across this blog post the other day by a fellow writing under the pseudonym “Orac.” Orac is a blogging “surgeon/scientist” (his real name is out there in the ether, so you’re free to ascribe whatever credibility you wish to his piece) who was responding to this piece on Salon.com from McKay Jenkins, a professor of English and Journalism at the University of Delaware. I highly recommend you read both pieces.
Long story short, Jenkins had a brush with cancer a few years back and it apparently inspired him to discover the “truth” behind cancer. This investigation culminated in a book entitled What’s Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World. And the excerpt printed Tuesday on Salon.com – entitled Did everyday chemicals cause my tumor? – irritated me. For a number of reasons. The story begins:
On a crisp fall afternoon a couple of years ago, I went in for a routine two-year checkup with my internist. Everything seemed to be fine: My home life was happy and nurturing. I had never smoked. I ate right, got plenty of rest, and had been a dedicated runner and cyclist my entire adult life. Save for the usual aches and pains, nothing had ever been wrong with my body, and as long as I was smart about it, I figured, I’d still be riding my Fausto Coppi racing bike well into my '80s.
My only complaint, I told my doctor, was a faint tightness in my hip that I had felt off and on for two years — and odd, sharp twinges between my left thigh, knee and shin that occasionally accompanied it. My internist looked me over and agreed that my pains were probably related to exercise, and he suggested I see an orthopedist at a nearby sports medicine clinic. The orthopedist, in turn, suggested I get an MRI to help him see a bit more clearly what was going on with my soft tissue.
I was standing in my living room when the phone rang just a few hours later. When I picked up the phone and heard the orthopedist’s voice, I knew even before he spoke that something was amiss. "Hello, Mr. Jenkins," he said, then paused. "You have a suspicious mass in your abdomen," he said. "It's growing inside your left hip. Here is the number for an oncologist. You need to call him right away."
I’m going to sound like a jerk here, but whatever. That started around age 5. Anyway, I’ve heard this “doctor calls says you probably have cancer and hangs up” bit a million times. There’s one commercial in particular in which I remember a woman saying, “The doctor walked in the room and said “Karen, you have cancer” and walked out.” Look, maybe that stuff happens. But I have seen roughly 25 to 30 doctors throughout my ordeal, and not a single one has ever left the room until they had answered every question I had, and not once have I ever felt a doctor was hurrying me along so he could get somewhere else. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but I just get the feeling that some of these stories are hammed up for dramatic effect, and I don’t think that’s right. And I think it’s sort of unfair to doctors – they often get painted as cold, heartless patient-pushers. That has not been my experience. At all. Anyway, maybe that was the experience exactly as it happened. I could be wrong, and if you want to say, “who are you to question somebody else’s cancer story?” I won’t object. But it certainly sets the stage nicely for where Jenkins goes next:
This was really happening. But how? This was not a grinding descent into illness; it was a bolt from the blue. I did not feel sick, and never had. My mind raced. How could I possibly have cancer? A few weeks later, I was being prepared for surgery at the hospital when two researchers approached me with questions. The first ones were pretty standard: What ethnic group best describes you? Um, white. How far did you make it in school? I have a Ph.D., I said. How many packs of cigarettes have you smoked per day, on average? None, I said. Ever. Then the questions changed, from ones I had been asked by doctors dozens of times before to ones I had never been asked in my life.
How much exposure had I had to toxic chemicals and other contaminants? In my life? I asked. This seemed like an odd question. What kind of chemicals do you mean? The researcher began reading from a list, which turned out to be long. Some things I had heard of, many others I had not. Metal filings? Asbestos dust? Cutting oils? I didn’t think so. What’s a cutting oil? How about gasoline exhaust? Asphalt? Foam insulation? Natural gas fumes?
Where was this going?
Uh…where the hell is your story going. And who on earth are these researchers? The Men in Black? And what kind of hospital lets researchers interrogate their pre-op patients with lifestyle questions? As Orac points out, “I have to be honest here: the design of this research project baffles me.”
Anyway, we’re getting there. But not without this bit of good news:
A couple of hours later, a doctor led me into the operating room, and I lay down on the table. A moment later, it seemed, I awoke. My eyes felt fuzzy, and blurred by bright overhead lights. Where was I? I blinked. There, at the foot of my bed, stood Katherine and my surgeon. Both were beaming. Something must have gone well, I thought. You're a lucky man, the doctor said. The tumor was as big as an orange, but it turned out to be growing out of a nerve cell rather than a muscle cell. We sent a slice of it down to the lab; it turned out to be benign. Of a hundred cases like this, about four turn out this way. Not only that, we managed to peel the tumor off your femoral nerve. Once you recover, you can get back to running and riding your bike. You’re a very lucky man.
Ok this also bugs me. Because I think it’s backwards. Orac calls it “not true,” but either way: most masses are benign. The doctors who originally examined my lump certainly mentioned the c-word, but they also told me that they thought the mass was benign. Like most such masses. There’s a whole other issue about why on earth that thing wasn’t biopsied first (and why researchers were asking somebody questions when his diagnosis was unclear), but Orac deals with that better than I can. Again, maybe I’m nitpicking again. But don’t say things like this because now people who read this and then discover a soft mass some day think the chance that they have cancer is 95%, and it’s not. So don’t say that it is.
Anyway, now we’re getting to the meat of the piece. And here’s how Jenkins sets it up:
What is going on here?
No one goes through a cancer scare without experiencing a kind of awakening. Here’s what mine looked like: I went from being a passive observer of other people’s suffering to feeling an intimate desire to prevent that suffering. I wanted to know if there were root causes. I wanted to try to see things just as they are, how they came to be that way, and what I could do to protect myself and my children.
And here’s how the next several paragraphs begin:
It's worth thinking about what a relatively short time we’ve been swimming in synthetic chemicals…
In his book "The Omnivore’s Dilemma," Michael Pollan outlines the way our industrial food chain floats on an ocean of cheap oil…
The trouble with such rapid proliferation of products made from petrochemicals, of course, has been that the production and use of synthetic chemicals has vastly outpaced our ability to monitor their effects on our health and the environment…
The human immune system has evolved over millennia to combat naturally occurring bacterial and viral agents. It has had only a few decades to adjust to most man-made contaminants, many of which are chemically similar to substances produced naturally by our own bodies…
What becomes clear, if you stop to think about it, is that what’s gotten into us is not just chemicals but culture. We aren’t just saturated with chemicals, after all; we are saturated with products, and marketing, and advertising, and political lobbying…
Our ignorance is not an accident. We are not meant to know what goes into the products we use every day. The manufacturers of most American-made products tend to keep the ingredients and formulations of their products secret, and rarely mention that individual ingredients might (or do) cause cancer, or impede fetal development, or lead to hormone imbalances…
Almost 50 years after Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," and the tide of synthetic chemicals is only rising…
You get the picture.
I’ll be blunt: This isn’t science. This is a rant. I haven’t read the book. I’m not going to read the book. So I speak with those caveats. But this isn’t a calm analysis of what science has to say about what causes cancer. This is a rant worthy of a blog, but not mine, because it’s not that good and the targets aren’t even interesting. I defend medical marijuana patients and attack Mitch Albom. Jenkins rails against Big Oil and lobbyists and gives a shout out to Rachel Carson. Gee, couldn’t tell you work on a college campus.
I mean seriously, in just this excerpt, we get a Nazi reference, shots at Big Oil and Big Coal, the line “Every choice we make is a bargain with the devil,” and this gem:
You want to wash your infant’s hair. What could be more benign than baby shampoo? But look closer at the label on the bottle: the baby shampoo contains formaldehyde, which causes cancer and compromises the immune system.
Hey Mr. Jenkins: Every parent who has ever taken their kid to chemo treatment thanks you for telling them that they gave their child cancer, you jackass.
Anyway, I don’t want to ramble, so let me be clear (I paid my taxes, so I can use that phrase now): I’m open to and even lean toward the conclusion that there are chemicals in our environment that can increase the risk of cancer. But this is straight-up fear mongering bullshit. And if you’re not going to write honestly about cancer, don’t write about it at all. It’s not a game. It’s not a joke. It’s not a jumping board for your rants against big oil and evil corporations and lobbyists and a plea for gub’mint to come save us.
I mean, you can’t tell us that out of 80,000 chemicals, “99 percent of chemicals in use today have never been tested for their effects on human health” and then expect me to see your diatribe as a rational argument based on facts and science. You might as well title your book 79,000 Ways to Prove a Negative.
I’m not sure what this is. It might be a desperate grasp for control over something that saps all control from you: maybe, if we just avoid “bad” things, we’ll be ok. It might be your standard “evil corporation” BS in a carcinogenic context. Maybe it’s a branch of the simplistic “natural = good, synthetic = bad” train of thought that pervades the dietary realm.
But I do know one thing: When I ask five doctors with over 100 years of oncology experience what caused or could have caused my cancer and they tell me “nothing, it was just a random mutation and some bad luck,” I’m probably going to accept that answer. Rather than, you know, screaming at my mother for washing my hair when I was six months old or letting me drink apple juice from a plastic cup.