87 “The Secret History of the War on Cancer”

Devra Davis spent 20 years working on this book to find out why so little progress had been made in combating cancer despite the huge amount of resources directed at research in USA. In reality, things have actually deteriorated. In the USA and in England one in every two men and one in every three women will develop cancer in their lifetime. The author has impeccable credentials. She is an epidemiologist who spent 10 years employed by the National Academy of Sciences. During her time as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services, she advised leading officials in the United States, United Nations, European Environment Agency, Pan American Health Organization, World Health Organization, and World Bank. Between 1983 and 1986 she served as a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors of the U.S. National Toxicology Program.She founded theCenter for Environmental Oncology of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute where she was director from 2004 to 2010.

The results of the detailed investigations she conducted in order to write the book expose how the leaders of major industries have undermined and downplayed knowledge and information that could have been used to devise effective measures to eliminate and prevent a range of different cancers.

Here are some of the key findings which are in the book:

  • Some leading scientists employed by the American cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute were hired to work directly for the tobacco industry, which funded major academic research programmes with the prime objective of raising doubts about the dangers of tobacco products. This strategy continued right up to the 1990s.
  • The introduction of the Pap smear was delayed for over 10 years after its effectiveness had been demonstrated, because of fears that it would damage private medical practice.
  • As long ago as the 1930s, scientists in Germany had identified the carcinogenic properties of medical and environmental hormones in the workplace as well as the cancer-causing properties of tobacco. This information was collated for the US and UK governments but the files have never been published.
  • Major US companies, including Ethyl (owned by Standard Oil), General Motors and American Cyanimid engaged the Kettering laboratories at the University of Cinncinnati to conduct work in secret on the hazards of workplace chemicals. The topics included lead in petrol, materials used to coat cooking surfaces of pots and pans, residues of cancerous materials in paraffin wax used in milk cartons, the manufacture of rubber and coke, and many other industrial chemicals. In most cases the results were never released. Worker health was regarded as a trade secret in many countries.
  • During the 1970 and 1980s huge amounts of public money were spent trying to develop a “safe” cigarette, despite general agreement amongst scientists that the objective was impossible.
  • A number of distinguished cancer research workers in the USA and Europe secretly worked for the chemical industry for years without disclosing these links in scientific papers or when providing advice to governments on subjects of direct relevance to the interests of the companies involved. These included Sir Richard Doll of Oxford University, Hans-Olav Adami of the Karolinska Institute and Dimitri Trichlopoulos of the Harvard School of Public Health.
  • The USA is one of the few industrial countries not to have banned asbestos. Between 2000 and 2006, the USA increased the imports of asbestos products from China, Brazil, Columbia and Mexico by a factor of 3. In France, only one in 4 cases of mesothelioma-a rare tumour which apparently can only be caused by exposure to asbestos-is awarded compensation for damage to health as a result of the workplace environment.
  • Records kept by Meyron Mehlman, who was director of toxicology at Mobil Oil show that Mobil and other oil companies concealed information about the health dangers of benzene. Mehlman was sacked but was subsequently awarded $7 million for wrongful termination, which was described as “outrageous” by the trial judge.

Although the role of tobacco as a carcinogenic agent is now accepted the industry used a variety of techniques, especially sophisticated public relations campaigns, presented as cutting-edge science, to muddy the waters by raising doubts about the validity of the evidence. As a consequence, many people died because they were unaware of/not convinced about the reliability of the link between smoking tobacco and the dangers to public health. The book explains that exactly the same approaches are still being used to protect many other chemicals which cause cancer. These include vinyl chloride, benzene and asbestos.

What comes across very clearly is that if a company finds that there is a possible cancer risk associated with one of its products it will use every trick in the book to discredit the evidence and the scientists involved. In addition if the business itself has generated information which casts doubt on the safety of its products, it is highly unlikely that it will ever be released.

The insight provide by Devra Davis goes a long to help us understand why so little progress has been made against cancer in spite of the enormous amount of resources devoted to research and to treatment. The key to overcoming cancer successfully is to identify the causes. This is clearly demonstrated with smoking and lung cancer. When this information was widely disseminated and the number of smokers declined, there was a corresponding decrease in the incidence of lung cancer. The scandal is that it took so long for this to happen and that the tobacco companies continue to market and sell their products in countries, where the dangers are not generally appreciated.

The big push in cancer research is to try to find a “cure” for the disease. There are 3 basic approaches, namely surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. By and large these have not been successful in the long term. Even if they work in the short term, the chances are that the disease will return unless the fundamental causes have been removed. In the real world of conventional medicine it is very rare that any attempt is ever made to identify the reason why the cancer started in the first place.

In Blog 47 (2) I relate the story of David Servan-Shreiber, who was clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In his book “Anti-Cancer” , he describes his experience when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. This was treated successfully by surgery. However when he has asked his colleagues what he should do to prevent a recurrence, none of them could provide an answer. I suspect that this as a fairly typical response and that it is not often that any attention is given to discovering the original cause.

If we are ever going to get to grips with cancer then it is essential to place much greater emphasis on identifying and eliminating those aspects of the environment, lifestyle and diet which increase the risks of developing the different types of cancer. As Devra Davis has demonstrated this will require companies and regulatory authorities to adopt a much more responsible, transparent and ethical approach than has been evident up to now. We can only hope!!!


  1. Devra Davis (2009) “The Secret History of the War on Cancer” Basic Books New York ISBN 978-0-465-01568-9
  2. https://vernerwheelock.com/?p=279




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