The Working Catholic: Cancer
by Bill Droel
When the diagnosis is cancer, our singular focus is properly on treatment—surgery, radiation, chemo, immunotherapy, blocking therapy and more. The bulk of cancer research is directed toward improving these treatments and finding others. Prior to a cancer diagnosis most people do not often think about cancer and we rarely think about the cause of cancer.
Dr. Samuel Epstein died here in Chicago in March at age 91. He was long affiliated with the School of Public Health at University of Illinois. His controversial 1978 book, The Politics of Cancer, was prophetic. “Most cancer is environmental in origin and is therefore preventable,” he wrote back in those days. However, we as a society have made political tradeoffs that tolerate cancer-causing agents in our air, soil, food and beverages. We as a society make these trades for the sake of industrial jobs, less expensive groceries, faster travel, cheaper energy and more.
“Cancer has distinct, identifiable causes,” Epstein wrote. It is not just one more disease associated with aging. Cancer is the only major disease on the increase, he continued. Yet, when attention is brought to cancer, we seem to accept its inevitability. Epstein furnishes two common sentences: “Everything causes cancer, so why bother?” and “You’ve got to go somehow, so it might just as well be cancer.”
Decisions about cancer tradeoffs are made by way of our country’s default moral system. It can be called utilitarian calculus or cost-benefit analysis. It claims that by adding and subtracting projected benefits and suspected harm we are able to determine “the greatest good for the maximum number of people.” This system has several faults, of course. Decisions about industrial pollution, product safety, acceptable soil contamination, modes of transportation and the like are made in Congress, in government agencies, in city halls, in corporate board rooms and in research labs. Yes, science labs make political trades. “Many so-called scientific decisions are in fact economic considerations,” as Epstein wrote.
Various interests lobby and/or fund these remote decision-making entities. The lobbyists expect that their particular interest will be favored. The cancer decisions are not voted upon. Even if they were, the losers (those who are not within “the maximum number”) have to—more or less—accept what others say is “acceptable risk of cancer.”
We as a modern society use the utilitarian method because we no longer believe in objective truth. Reality is mostly my opinion and my feelings plus my loyalty to my crowd, my identity group. This is why it is frustratingly useless to bring facts to bear on a topic. We are all caught in a swirl of what White House advisor Kellyanne Conway tells us are alternative facts.
Without some objective morality, our best attack against cancer is the environmental movement. Every part of acting green directly or eventually levels a punch at cancer.
Start in the kitchen and the alley. Don’t believe the detractors of recycling. It is energy efficient and the recycled items get to the proper fabricators, as Brian Clark Howard details in Chicago Tribune (4/23/18). In Chicago’s alleys the garbage cans are either blue or black. (This is Chicago’s second attempt at a recycling program.) The rules for what goes in which colored-can are a little confusing—at least to your columnist. But, as with all moral behavior, don’t be paralyzed by scrupulosity. Sorting does not have to be perfect in order to make our world green, Howard explains.
Of course, individual action is not sufficient. Only political power can change the big decisions that give cancer permission to invade. But again, the counter-attack can start in small groups. It can be a discussion group, provided its participants move into action—sooner rather than later. The group can popularize some language about the topic. For example, we all have to speak plainly about the cancer lobby. The phrase sounds startling at first because no one goes on a talk show and says, “I’m in favor of cancer.” Yet many powerful entities (tobacco companies, for example) blithely offer excuses for cancerous agents.
A subsequent column will furnish examples of small groups agitating for a green society. Send along your own examples to the address below.
Droel is an editor for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629). NCL distributes Pope Francis’ green encyclical, Care for Our Common Home ($8.50).