Nursing Book Club

The Secret History of the War on Cancer

Compelling evidence on the environmental causes of cancer, from industrial pollution to cell phones

By Devra Davis, PhD, MPH; Basic Books, 2007
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

Book ReviewDevra Davis is an author who holds her impressive credentials out in front. Possessing both a Ph.D. and an M.P.H., she’s director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, founding director of the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the National Academy of Sciences, and a global environmental advisor to Newsweek magazine. When she points out that, with all the research done and the money poured into the war on cancer, it should have been won long ago, you’re inclined to agree. The fact that a portion of the proceeds from book sales will be devoted to support even more research on cancer prevention, not treatment, makes you want to agree even more. There’s something about the book’s style, however, that makes me want to check every reference to see what she’s holding back.

The information provided about environmental causes for cancer is certainly compelling. When Dr. Davis tells us that the tobacco companies knew about their deadly product long before the rest of us, I know it’s true. She begins her tale decades before that, though, with the story of Maud Slye, a pathologist from the University of Chicago who, in 1936, traveled to Brussels on the Queen Mary to attend the Second International Congress of Scientific and Social Campaign Against Cancer. Three quarters of a century ago, scientists from around the world were already probing industrial and government sources of data looking for the cause of cancer. Benzene and coal tar had been identified as problems, yet legislation to contain industrial pollution was still decades away.

Dr. Davis believes that, again and again, the government solution was to study the problem, and study it some more while giving industry time to adjust. Those affected by cancer-causing agents continued to be at risk while the studies were being done. Researchers conducting the studies at great expense thought that they were supporting the public interest but, in effect, while working for government agencies, she finds that “we had become part of a well-established government tradition: studying problems as an excuse for not acting to change current practices. There are always powerful voices asking regulators to hold on just a few more years while the scientists complete their research, before taking any hasty actions that might disturb local businesses…” Thus, the celebrated War on Cancer consists only of ongoing skirmishes. To Dr. Davis, it’s as if we’ve identified the enemy but there are too many interested in letting it get away; and so it does.

Dr. Davis pulls out all the stops to make her point. She gives a lengthy history about industrial pollution, Superfund legislation and disease registries. She makes it all easy to understand but continually confuses the reader by mixing personal history, sarcasm and interviews. Just when you’re soaking up a well-presented summary of a study, she sneaks in personal opinion about a scientist and his ethics. Long before the end of the book, however, you’re won over to her side and grow suspicious of nearly every product you’ve purchased and every business in your community as a potential source of pollution.

The final chapter leaves you with an eerie feeling as she points to substances that she believes may be the next environmental problems. Aspertame, radiological studies and cell phones are just a few of the things that she feels have not been tested sufficiently. Everything in The Secret History of the War on Cancer may not be new to you, but there is certainly enough to be explored to make reading it worth your while.

Written By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, has worked as a nurse since 1979, and has written extensively for various nursing publications, as well as The New York Times.

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