WE have an epidemic of dis belief about cancer in this country - but it's the op posite of what you probably expect. Cancer death rates have been falling for years, and now are falling even faster. Yet it's still stories about allegedly ignored cancer threats that grab our attention.
If death rates were rising, the situation would (rightly) be front-page news. But the new report by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society notes that the rate of decline in U.S. cancer deaths has doubled. And that story got buried (A18 in The New York Times, nowhere in The Wall Street Journal).
Most people will have forgotten the good news by the next time an activist group talks up "the cancer epidemic."
Consider advocates like Dr. Samuel Epstein, professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois and chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition. He travels the country giving a speech titled "Losing the War Against Cancer: Who's Responsible and What to Do About It." He has written that industrial technologies are to blame for "the modern cancer epidemic."
He's not alone. Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of Preventive Medicine at New York's Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, is a leading proponent of the notion that we are being bombarded with cancer-causing chemicals at every turn. Perhaps enticed by federal research dollars and adoring media attention, researchers around the country use faulty studies to reach tenuous conclusions, all in an effort to persuade us that modern life causes cancer.
The goal is clearly stated at the "Human Toxome Project" Web site, where the Environmental Working Group claims to "map the pollution in people" and tell us which everyday chemicals might cause cancer and other diseases. The problem is, it often relies only on studies that involve giving animals megadoses of the alleged toxin; such results often differ with findings of studies of humans who didn't get cancer, even when exposed to far higher levels in occupational settings.
These advocates tell us that chemicals in the air, food and water are making us sick. Apparently, we like hearing it, regardless of the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.
Yet the good news can point us to where we have gone right - and where more needs to be done.
For instance, incidence of colon cancer fell by more than 2 percent from 2002 to 2004, most likely because of screening and the resulting removal of precancerous polyps. This intervention is working.
By contrast, lung-cancer rates in certain populations are not falling even as other types of cancer are dropping - suggesting that we should refocus our quit-smoking efforts to those groups where we can get the biggest bang for the buck.
Yet nowhere in the latest report is there any evidence suggesting we should fear the sorts of things people often blame for the (non-existent) cancer epidemic: no evidence that the ubiquitous use of cell phones is leading to an epidemic of brain tumors, or that teflon pans are causing liver cancer, or that eating red meat is causing an increase in colon-cancer rates.
(Again, we're seeing a drop in colon cancer - even though obesity, a proven factor in the cancer's incidence, is rising.)
It's time to face up to the good news. Cancer death rates are going down, faster than ever. And based on this information, it is time to re-evaluate the steps we take to continue this happy trend - even if nobody wants to listen.