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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 21.4 > The State of Tumortown

The State of Tumortown

The Cancer-care Industry’s Marketing Is Among the Most Deceptive on the Consumer Landscape

IN MAY 2016, JOHN HORGAN OF SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN wrote a blog in which he chastises “Capital-S” Skeptics for obsessing over “soft targets” like homeopathy and Bigfoot while neglecting “hard targets” like warfare and our dysfunctional cancer culture. Horgan thinks Skeptics should be more skeptical of science. His objective is admirable. His aim is hit-and-miss. The biggest miss is his claim that war is a cultural “innovation” that emerged about 12,000 years ago. One problem: The human diaspora had gone nearly global by 10,000 BCE. Humans arrived in the Americas 6,000 years before Horgan’s war-invention date. They made it to Australia much earlier, and there is overwhelming evidence of prehistoric warfare in both of those places. If war is an invention, it has obviously been invented many times. Horgan has merely kicked the can down the road, and now owes us an explanation of why humans seem to invent warfare nearly every chance they get.1

Illustration by Simone Rein

On the other hand, Horgan merits a partial hit for his comments about the war on cancer. He doesn’t get full credit because he cherry-picks his data. Horgan first laments that America ranks 34th worldwide in longevity. We’re actually 31st, but more important, the distribution of longevity is skewed. Japan leads with a life expectancy rounded off to 84 years. Seven countries tie for second place at 83, ten are at 82, and eleven are at 81. Just 4.4 years separate the USA from the top spot. At 31st from the bottom, on the other hand, are Papua New Guinea and South Africa, at 63 years. That’s 16 years behind the USA, and 13 years ahead of last-place Sierra Leone.2

Horgan also claims that “Europeans have lower cancer morality [sic] rates than Americans.” But the International Agency for Research on Cancer says that in 2012, Europe had slightly higher age-standardized rates of cancer than the U.S. Cancer Research UK says they are slightly lower. The differences are not huge, and depend in part on the quality of data reporting. In another blog, Horgan says that our age-adjusted death rate for cancer “has fallen by only five percent since 1950.” He cites a New York Times article by Gina Kolata. There, the data trail goes cold; Kolata doesn’t say where this figure comes from. The National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) puts the decline at 12.1%. Since 1975, age-adjusted cancer death rates have fallen by 18%.3

So the news on the cancer war front is not great, but it is not quite the bust that Horgan makes it out to be. Still, his point that our cancer care culture has gotten a pass for too long deserves a response. Here’s an example. When the “Skeptic’s Skeptic”4 Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010, he was a millionaire who could afford the best treatment available. In his posthumous Mortality, Hitchens says he chose “the highly advanced expertise uniquely available” at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which U.S. News & World Report had rated as the best oncology center in the U.S. for seven straight years.5 While Hitchens had been mercilessly skeptical of religion, he was surprisingly uncritical of the business he called “Tumortown.” “What do I hope for?” he asked in Mortality, “If not a cure, then a remission.” Neither was a realistic possibility. The 5-year survival rate for metastatic esophageal cancer is dismally below 5%. Throughout his treatment, recalls his widow Carol Blue, Hitchens “responded to every bit of statistical and clinical good news with a radical, childlike hope.”6 To be fair, Hitchens had studied religion his entire adult life. He had all of 18 months, in the worst imaginable circumstances, to learn about a disease that kills 589,000 Americans yearly. Had he survived longer, he might have realized that America’s most recognizable cancer centers, MD Anderson included, habitually overstate their success, and promote treatments whose therapeutic values are unclear or have already been debunked.

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About Skeptic

DECEPTION IN CANCER TREATMENT SPECIAL ISSUE: The Cancer-care Industry’s Marketing is Among the Most Deceptive on the Consumer Landscape. SPECIAL SECTION: Classic Skepticism: The Amityville Hoax at 40; Alien Sulls: Do the Mysterious Rhodope Skull and Adygea Skulls Belong to Aliens?; The Real Meaning Behind the Nazca Geoglyphs; Clown Panics: Sightings of Mysterious Clowns Rattle Nerves ARTICLES: The Case for a Galactic Defense System; Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?; Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?; Luck and Regression to the Mean: One of the Most Fundamental Sources of Error in Human Judgment; Political Obfuscation: Thinking Critically about Public Discourse. COLUMNS: The SkepDoc: Anti-Aging Claims: The Fountain of Youth is Still Only a Legend, by Harriet Hall, M.D.; The Gadfly: Can Working Memory Be Trained to Work Better? by Carol Tavris REVIEWS: “Three books about the Salem Witch Trials and their legacy: The Witches: Salem, by Stacy Schiff; In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, by Mary Beth Norton; America Bewitched: America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem, by Owen Davies JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Mammoth Mysteries! Part Two, by Daniel Loxton
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