Monday, December 28, 2009

Of Cancer and the Cold War.

Susan Chambre at Monthly Review takes a look at Ellen Leopold's new book, Under the Radar: Cancer and the Cold War. I'm beside myself with anticipation of this book's arrival here. To me, it's a new lens through which to view the subjugation of patients' rights for the sake of medical and technological advancement. By looking at cancer and the cold war, Leopold, according to Chambre, writes that it's a:

a provocative thesis about the forces that shaped cancer research and care in the United States. She points out that

Many of the features of our response to cancer today can….[b]e traced back to the aspirations of the Cold War. From the 1950’s through the 1980’s, the disease was uniquely intertwined with the characteristic undertakings and covert operations of the period. Almost every aspect of the current approach to the disease bears the imprint of this Cold War entanglement. The special terror and guilt that cancer evokes, the prominence of radiation therapies in the treatment arsenal, the current bias toward individual rather than corporate responsibility for rising incidence rates, toward research that promotes treatment rather than prevention, toward treatments that can be patented and marketed — all reflect a largely hidden history shaped by

the Cold War.

Chambre notes some of the weaknesses in the thesis, however:

Leopold provides an interesting and carefully researched analysis of the ways that political and economic interests shaped our response to cancer. The idea that the domestic side of the Cold War conditioned our response to disease is an intriguing one. It is, however, an incomplete explanation. The book overlooks some of the significant historical and cultural forces predating the Cold War that played and still play an important role. The secrecy and lack of concern for human rights characterizing the Cold War era have a long history when it comes to medical care and experimentation, as David Rothman carefully documented in Strangers at the Bedside.

Challenges to physician authority and the emergence of patients’ rights began in the 1960s, at a time when the Cold War continued to shape domestic policy. But the willingness of patients to undergo risky experiments in hopes of being cured predated the Cold War era — and is by no means only the result of patients acceding to medical authority or unknowingly participating in risky experiments, as Renee Fox describes in Experiment Perilous. Indeed, this willingness to challenge medical authority represents an important strand in U.S. life and culture, dating back to the early nineteenth century when Americans began to take charge of their health and “battle” or “fight” disease. Further, the book overlooks the important role of cancer advocates and organizations, such as the Laskers and the American Cancer Society (ACS), in shaping the emphasis on treatment to the detriment of prevention, and the ways that corporate funding to organizations, such as the ACS, have contributed to a limited interest in environmental and occupational hazards in cancer diagnoses.

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