The welcome the government has provided to this initiative contrasts sharply with the reception they’ve provided to other groups raising awareness about Canada’s most notorious carcinogen: the tar sands. This difference shines a light on the problematic way in which cancer prevention is approached.
Communication is certainly important to raise awareness about cancer. But over the past year the tar sands corporations and the governments that support them have ignored or interfered with individuals and groups communicating about the carcinogenic tar sands.
A tar sands worker was fired for exposing his working conditions on his blog! As he wrote, “I do not think that purchasing the rights to develop oil leases over expanses of land greater than most European countries gives these corporations the right to drop a blanket of total secrecy over their operations, treatment of people, and conditions.”
Recently local aboriginal leaders, fishermen, researchers and health professionals called attention to fish downstream of the tar sands which have tumours, while filmmaker James Cameron and NASA top scientists James Hansen have added their voice to the opposition. As Hansen stated, “it’s not that the government’s don’t know [about the consequences], but the governments are not doing anything.”
Worse than this, provincial and federal governments are actively intervening to silence those drawing attention to tar sands cancer. Dr. John O’Connor, who for years has spoken out about despite threats, against the high rates of rare cancers in Fort Chipewyan near the tar sands, is raising alarm over a proposed provincial bylaw that would muzzle physicians who raise health issues in the media.
Federally, after Greenpeace scaled Parliament to drop banners reading “climate inaction costs lives”, the government arrested activists and now arms its Parliament Hill officers with submachine guns. At the Copenhagen climate treaty, an indigenous-led delegation shamed Harper on the world stage for his commitment to carcinogenic tar sands. As Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Tar Sands Campaigner for the Rainforest Action Network said:
“Fossil fuel extraction from the tar sands are killing our people with cancer, killing our culture by destroying our traditional lands, and killing our planet with CO2. It seems that Canada is more committed to fossil fuels than human rights or real action for the climate. Mr. Harper – We welcome you to Copenhagen because we want real action on climate, and that means shutting down the tar sands and a moratorium on new fossil fuel development.”Instead of shutting down the tar sands, Harper shut down Parliament—to escape popular pressure over climate change, the torture of Afghans, and the recession. But last night our tar sands government participated in a corporate-sponsored cancer awareness initiative, by a cosmetic corporation whose products may be linked to cancer. How can governments and corporations who play a role in promoting cancer feel so confident to bask in the light of cancer awareness, cynically using people’s genuine concerns to distract from their own actions? Biomedical reductionism is partly to blame.
Surely the best way to conquer cancer is to understand the connections is has with modifiable aspects of our lives. But the dominance of the biomedical model decontextualizes people and their illnesses from their social and natural environments, and reduces disease to microscopic processes and individual “lifestyle choices”, for which medical intervention and “personal choices” are the only solutions. How have we done with this approach? Every year we know more about cancer and have more technology to detect and treat yet, and yet every year more people die of cancer. In fact, we are living in a pandemic of cancer: in the 1930s one in ten people developed cancer, in the 1970s it was up to one in five, and now more than one in three. While cancer was once uncommon, we now all have close family and friends with cancer.
The failure of the biomedical approach to explain and prevent cancer is often attributed to success, with the increase in cancer attributed to better screening or living longer, as if we’re naturally pre-programmed to develop cancer. But the vast majority of cancers are not genetic (only 5% of breast cancers), many cannot be screened for (like pancreatic or lung cancer) and this level of increase far outpaces the impact of aging. I see people with cancer on a daily basis and many are less than 50—including a 30 year old man I diagnosed a few months ago with colon cancer, and a 40 year woman I just saw who died of vulvar cancer.
This is not to say medicine does not play an important role. In fact, while there is a tremendous amount of time and resources that go into finding “the cure” for cancer, many medical advances already exist. Many cancers in the Global South are due to chronic infections for which prevention and treatment are already known but are denied due to poverty and pharmaceutical patents. Cervical cancer and much liver cancer could be prevented with access to pap smears and vaccines. Some forms of bladder cancer are caused by water-born infections that could be prevented through access to safe drinking water. The widespread availability of antiretrovirals could diminish the number of people who develop HIV-associated cancers.
When it comes to prevention, the dominant medical model is highly selective in what carcinogens it chooses to blame. The continual rise in lung cancer is blamed solely on the dissemination of cigarettes, but cigarettes are not the only chemical to enter existence over the last century. According to the Canadian Auto Workers Prevent Cancer Campaign:
“The International Agency for the Research of Cancer has identified 24 substances that cause lung cancer in humans. Twenty-three were determined by the excess mortality of workers who were exposed to these substances. The 24th, of course, is tobacco. Why do we hear so much about the dangers of tobacco but so little about the other 23 lung carcinogens? The reason is that tobacco is claimed to be a “lifestyle” choice, so industry and the medical profession can blame the victims. The other 23 known causes of lung cancer are related to industry. They can be prevented and removed from our workplaces and our environment.”Since breast cancer is sensitive to estrogen, all the focus on “risk factors” are about an individual’s reproductive cycle—menstruation, conception, breastfeeding, menopause. So it came as a surprise in 2006 when a Canadian study found that women working on farms and automotive industry are far more likely to develop breast cancer. It turns out that many chemicals, like pesticides, act like estrogens in the body and increase the risk of breast cancer. When the medical model reduces women to reproductive organs, it misses the threats they face as workers in toxic environments. As the CAW guide summarizes, this is not restricted to farm or auto workers:
“Workers in certain carcinogen-laden industries are contracting cancer at rates well beyond those experienced by the general population. At least 60 different occupations have been identified as posing as increased cancer risk. Studies show that the auto industry is producing laryngeal, stomach, and colorectal cancers along with its cars. The steel industry is producing lung cancer along with its metal products. Miners experience respiratory cancers many times higher than expected. Electrical workers are suffering increased rates of brain cancer and leukemeia. Aluminum smelter workers are contracting bladder cancer. Dry cleaners have elevated rates of digestive tract cancers. Firefighters contract brain and blood-related cancers at many times the expected levels. Women in the plastics and rubber industry are at greater risk for uterine cancer and possibly breast cancer. The list goes on and on.”CONQUER CANCER: SHUT DOWN THE TAR SANDS, GOOD GREEN JOBS FOR ALL
By seeing cancer connected to our natural and social environments, our vigilance does not have to be reduced to screening for cancers, but can be expanded to widespread prevention—by providing access to the medical advances that treat infectious precursors to cancer, and by developing an economy based on safe and environmentally sustainable work. So let’s expand the scope of the pink light, not only on Parliament but on the government’s toxic devotion to tar sands, and on our carcinogenic economy. Cancer prevention must include shutting down the tar sands, and expanding green jobs to save the planet and its people.