More money will not stop the cancer epidemic

Dr. Grazia De Michele is a social and cultural historian. In 2010, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and since founded an Italian cancer activism blog ‘Le Amazzoni Furiose’ (The Furious Amazons) and remains an international partner of the Breast Cancer Consortium. This is the second contribution made by Grazia for our series of cancer in the medical humanities, having previously discussed the need to change the conversation on breast cancer in Italy.

Correspondence to Dr Grazia De Michele,

Over the past week social media have been inundated with self-portraits (better known to digital addicts as ‘selfies’) of women without makeup, shared with the purpose of raising awareness on cancer and inviting people to donate money for research. The origin of the so called ‘No Makeup Selfie’ campaign is unknown. Cancer Research UK, recipient of more than two million pounds in forty-eight hours, said that they just asked people to add a request for a donation through a text message to their pictures.

Critics argued that narcissism was the primary driver of the campaign and pointed at how self-demeaning is for women to consider an act of braveness the mere fact of making public a picture showing what they really look like. On the other hand, however, they have felt obliged to admit that raising such an amount of money for cancer research was unquestionably good.

As a cancer activist, I feel it is my duty to question the unquestionable or, even better, what the dominant discourse on cancer constructs as such. The main assumption at the heart of this and many other fundraising initiatives is that the only way to solve the problem of cancer is to pump an exorbitant quantity of money into research. More money is equated to more hope. People genuinely donate because they are bombarded with this kind of message coming from the majority of charities focused on cancer research.

The reality, however, is that, in spite of decades of fundraising, a ‘cure’ for cancer does not exist and the disease is alarmingly expanding. One may wonder, as grassroots campaigners Jo and Rose from Brighton do in their blog, where all this money go. And even more, why our governments are failing to protect our health. Though still being not curable, many forms of cancer are preventable or they could be if only a specific set of measures were adopted and more resources were invested in investigating exogenous causes. In the case of breast cancer, for example, it is well known that endocrine disruptors contained in many consumer products, such as cosmetics and even shower curtains, are strongly suspected to be related to the disease. It would be certainly helpful to pursue this research path which, on the contrary, is being rather neglected.

As it has been demonstrated by Breast Cancer UK, between 2002 and 2012 cancer research funding doubled. Only 3.6% of the money went to research on cancer prevention and just 1.1% was invested in studies on environmental causes of cancers. There is a large amount of research on health eating habits and breast cancer prevention that, however, do not take into account how chemicals contained in food packages and pesticides increase the risk of developing the disease. In addition, the European Union’s regulation for hazardous chemicals is deemed inadequate and slow in banning substances that have already been found to be carcinogenic and DNA damaging.

The increasing number of cancer diagnoses has spurred the Alliance for Cancer Prevention to ask the UK government to set up a new Cancer Action Plan addressing environmental and professional risk factors. It is crucial to reorganize priorities and tackle the economic and so\cial inequalities contributing to the adoption of unhealthy lifestyles. The issue of cancer needs to be dealt with politically, changing the status quo that pharmaceutical and medical industries as well as governmental and charitable organizations aim to defend: “the onus needs to be shifted away from the feet of individuals to the feet of the cancer establishment to stem the rising incidence of a largely preventable disease”

It is time to stop donating money and start asking questions and calling for action. The end of cancer epidemic does not mean necessarily finding a ‘cure’ as it is commonly believed. It is possible and by now imperative to stop cancer before it starts.


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