Terrifying Women for Profits and Politics

By Michael Fumento

American Outlook, Fall 1999
Copyright 1999 the Hudson Institute

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"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and the name of the horse was breast cancer."

Okay, so that last part didn’t actually appear in the book of Revelation, but one can hardly blame women for thinking otherwise. The bombardment of Serbs in Kosovo hardly compares to the barrage of breast-cancer propaganda under which American females suffer today. And although much of this panic purveying is well-intentioned, much is sheer opportunism.

United Airlines, for example, now takes up mid-air collections for breast cancer research but neglects other cancers. Manhattan furriers, seeking a politically correct shield from animal rights activists, hang out banners saying that they contribute to breast-cancer research.

Other cancers? No.

A woman could not possibly know from all this "concern" that breast-cancer cases, adjusted for age, peaked in 1991, nor that death rates in women who do contract it are dropping. Three-fourths of all breast cancer victims now survive. Cancer as a whole peaked in 1992. While cancer of the breast is the type women are most likely to contract (excepting skin cancer), carcinoma of the lung is most likely kill them. (Please see accompanying graphics on the incidence of cancer and breast cancer in Americans.)

But whereas lung cancer is predominantly male (though the gap is closing), breast cancer is 99 percent female, making it a political issue. And while about nine-tenths of lung cancers are attributed to smoking, most breast cancers as yet have no causal explanation. That makes it perfect fodder for exploitation not by airlines and animal-skinners but by the "man causes cancer" clique.

Foremost in this exclusive group are Dr. Samuel Epstein of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Devra Lee Davis of the World Resources Institute. Dr. Epstein claims that silicone-gel breast implants cause cancer. This claim has great political appeal for those who believe that the availability of such implants exploit women, but the science does not support it.

A study of 3,500 women with silicone-gel breast implants published last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found no increased cancer risk, and noted, "the most consistent pattern observed from the investigations conducted to date has been a decreased risk of breast cancer" (emphasis added).

Little wonder, then, that the four-article section "Breast Cancer and the Environment" in the September-October Sierra Club magazine relies heavily on these two soapbox scientists. Nowhere does the magazine inform its readers that breast cancer and cancer cases overall stopped rising a decade ago.

To the contrary, it uncritically quotes Epstein as saying, "The widespread presence of carcinogens in our environment is clearly linked to rising cancer rates." Epstein labels this purely fictional connection as "corporate recklessness." Ms. Davis gets quite specific, fingering "plastics, fuels, and pesticides."

Pesticide usage, however, increased steadily until quite recently, even as cancer rates declined. In 1964, the first year for which the EPA gives estimates, 647 million pounds were used. In 1994, three years after breast cancer cases leveled, usage had increased to 999 million pounds. Consumers are burning more fuel and using more plastic than ever before, but cancer rates are flat or falling. The chemicals most strenuously vilified DDT, dioxin, and PCBs repeatedly get clean bills of health in huge epidemiological studies.

Though these substances have been vindicated, breast cancer certainly remains a dreadful disease for many women and the men who love them. Researchers must continue seeking causes (although preventative vaccines will probably be the ultimate solution). The problem is that while Epstein, Davis, and their followers waste time looking for politically correct breast-cancer causes, they de-emphasize already-known or highly suspected risk factors, such as obesity, smoking, a diet low in certain vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, not breastfeeding their infant children, and becoming pregnant relatively late in life or not at all.

Some evidence indicates that drinking less alcohol, eating more soy products, getting more exercise, and not having an induced abortion at an early age may help, but the juries are out on all of these. Unfortunately, the same political correctness that emphasizes "corporate recklessness" downplays lifestyle, labeling it "blaming the victim."

But the only blamethrowers are those in the reckless "corporate recklessness" clan. Portrayed as shining knights mounted on beautiful steeds, these opportunists and those who relay their claims to the public actually ride the pale horse.

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Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on cancer and on the media.