The Cancer Industry and the True Cost of Treatment

How cancer treatment and related medical costs form the backbone of a thriving industry, and a look at the true cost of finding a cure.

| October 2013

Malignant (University of California Press, 2013) explores the multitude of ways in which cancer affects our everyday lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Author S. Lochlann Jain, a professor of anthropology and a survivor herself, probes cancer as a set of relationships: economic, medical, personal, ethical, institutional, and statistical. In this except from the introduction, the economic footprint of the “Cancer Industry” is explored.

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The Cancer Industry and the True Cost of Treatment

If you look up cancer in a medical dictionary, you will read that cancer begins when an injured cell speeds up the normal process of division. Eventually these quickly dividing cells may form a tumor, which then may build its own set of blood vessels in order to feed itself in a process called angiogenesis. (Blood cancers, or liquid tumors, don’t form static tumors in quite the same way.) Some cells may break off from a localized tumor and move to a different part of the body, colonizing a vital organ or bone. For most cancers, once this metastasis happens, you are probably sunk (a term one will not find in medical journals but that nonetheless feels accurate). These distinguishing features describe at least several hundred diseases that flutter under the cancer banner.

A more truthful account of cancer would require a full-blown epic movie series, for cancer has become a central, silent, ubiquitous player in twentieth- and twenty-first-century America. One would watch images of our greatness fading in and out to a heart-swelling orchestral score. Each of America’s iconic industries —agriculture, oil and gas, cosmetics, plastics, pesticides, tobacco, medicine, construction, military—has undoubtedly led to tens of millions of cancer deaths. The unique way in which cancer presents, decades after exposures, makes it central to the growth of both the industries and the illness, in short, to the existence of the United States as we know it.

If I were to direct such a movie, I would start by examining how cancer has become a potent metaphor for anything evil or scary. As a result, cancer—or at least the fight against it—provides a moral ground for anyone taking a stand against something bad, something that indeed might “metastasize” or spread, whether guns, fascism, or gay people. If the disease itself provides the archetype of malevolence such that “curing cancer” offers an equivalent to “saving the world” in all kinds of thought experiments, the stereotype of the diseased victim that one treats with kid gloves can be useful, too. Witness Tour de France winner (or ex-winner, since he has now been stripped of his seven victories) Lance Armstrong’s use of his year in treatment to at once explain his greatness and divert attention from his performance-enhancing drug use.

Tobacco’s relation to cancer has been well rehearsed. But for good measure my production crew would run footage from the 1970s, describing how the cigarette industry brains shifted the demographics of lung cancer with the jingle “You’ve come a long way, baby” for their special feminist cigarette, Virginia Slims. By sponsoring women’s tennis and advertising specifically to African Americans when no one else would, cancer incidentally joined progressive causes. The tobacco industry’s role in cancer does not end with the millions of lung cancer deaths. The industry inadvertently enabled the rise of the field that became epidemiology as a result of controversial attempts to link lung cancer to smoking. My blockbuster would describe how cancer also provided opportunities for major public health campaigns and philanthropic endeavors, shaping the form of both of those areas of the American Experience. In one ironic twist, the widow of the ad executive behind the 1930s advertising campaign “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” became one of the main activists promoting the War on Cancer, launched in 1971. Cancer giveth fortunes and taketh them away.