After belatedly reading my colleague Paul Raeburn’s scathing appraisal of the Time magazine story on cancer, I’m thinking I was too generous in my previous post. I wrote that if you could forget for a moment the reckless magazine cover – with its blaring headline “How to Cure Cancer” — that the article itself was reasonably well done.
Raeburn makes some good criticisms and, it turns out, there is an even larger issue. I had read the Time story online and not in the paper edition, and it is disturbing to learn that there is a full-page advertisement for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center placed among the pages of the article. Even worse, Raeburn writes in a follow-up post, “the language in the ad is almost identical to some of the language in the story.”
Anderson has had a wave of bad publicity under its recently appointed president, Ronald DePinho, and his wife, Lynda Chin, over conflicts of interest and a managerial style that has led to resignations of top researchers. And Dr. DePinho’s “moon shots” program and the way it was played up last year on CNN has been called the worst kind of cancer hype. For a biting critique see Gary Schwitzer’s report in HealthNewsReview.org.
Since then morale at Anderson has apparently gotten worse. Just as Time’s cover story appeared last week, The Cancer Letter published a special issue about the low morale at Anderson, as described in a 64-page internal report. (Both can be downloaded at The Cancer Letter’s website.)
Related posts: On Dwarves, James Watson, and the Oddities of Cancer
We usually think of carcinogens as substances that mutate DNA, scrambling the program in a cell’s genome and converting it into a cancer cell. But not all carcinogens are mutagens. Others work in a more subtle way.
Every time a cell divides it must copy its gigabits of genetic information and pass them along to its progeny. They, in turn, hand down the legacy to the next generation, and so on down the line. Like everything in life, it is an imperfect process and along the way mutations, most of them harmless, are inevitably occurring. Anything that stimulates a cell to divide at a faster rate will increase the number of these random errors — and that raises the odds of hitting on a combination that can drive a cell malignant. Read More
You can sympathize with the people who drank the water and abhor the polluters and still not be persuaded that there was a cancer outbreak. That sums up the message of my recent posts on Erin Brockovich and the article I wrote for Slate on the Toms River cancer cluster. It could apply just as easily to the case in Woburn, Massachusetts, which was made famous by Jonathan Harr’s book, A Civil Action.
Woburn and Toms River are the only two places in the United States where epidemiologists have found an association — a very murky one — between pollution and cancer in some of the residents. Both incidents involved childhood leukemia, and the number of excess cases finally attributed to toxic effluents was about half a dozen in each town, occurring over a period of 10 or more years. For no known reason boys were affected in Woburn and girls in Toms River. Both may have been statistical flukes. Read More
My last two posts about the Erin Brockovich case are part of a tangent that began with an article I wrote for Slate about cancer clusters. Before continuing I want to step back and tie this all more firmly into one of the themes of this column: how the human brain, flooded with the information storming our senses, is driven to pick out patterns — or to impose them if they are not there. This is how I put it in my book, Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order:
Psychologists have found that if you put people in a room with a contraption of lightbulbs wired to blink on and off at random, they will quickly discern what they believe are patterns, theories for predicting which bulb will be next to blink. Once a person becomes enmeshed in an ideology or a scientist in a hypothesis, it is difficult not to see confirmation everywhere. Our brains are wired to see order, but we are cursed with never knowing whether we are seeing truths out there in the universe or inventing elaborate architectures.
Chromium, an element in the periodic table, occurs naturally in the earth, and when dissolved in the water it migrates between two states. Chromium 3 is essential to human metabolism and is supplied in multivitamin pills. Chromium 6, in high enough concentrations, can be harmful and even carcinogenic. The difference lies in what chemists call the oxidation state, which indicates how reactive a substance is.
The E.P.A. sets a standard for how much chromium is safe in drinking water, whether occurring naturally or as the result of industrial pollution: no more than 0.1 parts per million for both types combined. The number is based on the worst-case assumption that all of the chromium might be the poisonous kind. Read More
This week in a piece for Slate about cancer clusters, like the one made famous by the movie Erin Brockovich, I describe how they almost always turn out to be illusions — examples of what the epidemiologist Seymour Grufferman called “the Texas sharpshooter effect.” Here is how I described it in my article: Stand way back and blast the side of a barn with a shotgun and then find some holes that are crowded together. Draw a circle around them and you have what looks like a bull’s-eye.
The pollution that was blamed for the malignancies may be very real — the Brockovich case involved a metal called hexavalent chromium or chromium 6 that had been discharged during the 1950s and 60s into the drinking water of Hinkley, a small town in the Mojave Desert. The people who lived there were naturally afraid of what the chemical might be doing to their health. But long after the movie was gone from the theaters and the residents and their lawyers had received a $300 million settlement, a 12-year epidemiological study was completed. No elevation of cancer was found. Read More
As Philip Roth celebrates (we hope he is celebrating) his 80th birthday today, all of us avid fans are mourning his decision not to write any more books — and lamenting that the definitive biography of the writer will not appear for perhaps a decade. Ever since I read James Atlas’s wonderful biography of Saul Bellow, another of my favorites, I’ve been waiting to read the full story of Roth’s complicated life, the one he tantalizes us with in his self-referential fiction.
To mark the day I’d like to quote one of my favorite passages, from Roth’s Exit Ghost, which captures my own feelings about cell phones. In the novel Roth’s alter ego has returned, like Rip van Winkle, to New York City from his secluded mountain redoubt. He describes what it is like to be plunged suddenly into a new world. Read More
Most studies on what can raise or lower the risk of cancer should probably never be publicized — an impossible dream in the Internet age. However good the research, once it is treated as news the significance is blown far beyond proportion. Consider a paper, published last week in the journal Cancer, reporting that aspirin reduced the odds of older women getting melanoma by 21 percent, and by as much as 30 percent if the pills were taken for a longer time.
That is far from implausible. Inflammation is intimately linked with cancer. Many of the same mechanisms normally employed to heal a wound—replacing diseased tissue with healthy new cells—are subverted to help generate a tumor. A number of studies have suggested that by reducing inflammation aspirin may muffle the effect, though any benefit would have to be weighed against the pills’ harmful side effects. Read More
3.1415926535 . . .
When I heard that today is supposed to be pi day, 3/14, I found it hard to get very excited. If this were March 14, 1592 — giving four more digits of the decimal expansion — that would be a more interesting coincidence. But that day has come and gone. Or did pi day come and go today (and every March 14) at 1:59 am and 26 seconds? Or 26.535 seconds. That is still far from precise. With an infinite number of digits in the decimal expansion — a sequence that never repeats — pi day would last an infinitesimally short period of time. Read More
Today marks the second anniversary of the tsunami that wiped out a nuclear plant on the coast of Japan and lead to a triple meltdown. The emotional fallout from the disaster has been an enormous setback for the promoters of fission-generated power. But of the four fundamental forces of nature, it is gravity, not nuclear, that has caused the most casualties at Fukushima.
The death toll from the crashing waves killed some 20,000 people. But no one, including emergency workers at the plant, has died from the radiation, and no one has yet been diagnosed with a radiation-induced cancer. It is still very early. Ionizing rays — the kind powerful enough to break molecular bonds — can mutate genes, and the effects may not be apparent for decades. All we can do is predict. Read More