Monday, April 22, 2013

Cooking with Oncology

It's Waiting

When life-threatening, infectious disease had been largely eliminated from the leading industrial nations, it was like the end of the Cold War. Naive observers at the time--after the conquest, say, of polio--might have thought things would start to get better in the realm of public health. Instead, massive cancer epidemics suddenly overtook the first world, spurring hundreds of billions of dollars of yearly spending, and creating a pervasive climate of fearful inevitability about the process of aging. Cancer had always "been there," in the sense that the human body had always been redirecting toxins into tumors to reduce toxin circulation into the rest of the body, but modern oncology defined itself through the use of knives and radiation to directly attack the immune system. Suddenly, "cancer" and "medicine" had a vibrant new professional life: with no more real terrorists left to fight, and all the old diseases under control in bio-weapon laboratories, the body itself became the enemy. Instead of medicine becoming as simple, cheap, and automatic a process as buying food at the grocery store, the medical industry would continue to dominate the post-industrial states in a protracted battle against cancer.

One of the most sacred of the available sacred cows, and a step that causes many to falter in their critical analysis of the world about them, is that of "modern science" and, that demented old bull, "modern medicine." It is so very, very easy, by comparison, to figure out U.S. Presidents (and the concomitant inbred warlust blend of finance, economy, and manufacturing), but, because "science" ostensibly impacts our actual bodies every time we visit the doctor's office, and because westerners have been conditioned by years of childhood to submit to the intimate probing and painful bodily invasion of state medical agents in severe processing environments, "medicine" breaks many thinkers on the path. Frightened of what they might see, they turn away, content to focus on analyzing such simple fields as art, the humanities, high finance, and international relations. These things, they feel, are quite explicable with a little internet research, but they're not qualified to draw conclusions about actually complicated subjects, like how chemicals interact with their own bodies.

To some people, it is "lunatic fringe" to suggest that national liberal Democrat politicians are not sweet, pure-hearted peacemakers who battle big business on behalf of the common people everywhere. To even more than that, it is "lunatic fringe" to suggest that there is something deeply, terribly, or--worst of all--intrinsically wrong with the idea that medicine has anything at all to do with humankind's medical problems. For decades, nutty, uneducated wackos warned people that there were too many x-ray machines popping up across the industrial west, and in the 2000s, major governments began officially acknowledging that unnecessary hospital/lab screenings and security checkpoints were giving too many people cancer (or, in the case of Europe, eliminating certain scanners entirely for public health reasons).

Cancer is our monster, in the most Romantic possible sense, and if you haven't kissed it yet, you will.

Procedural Death

Many people who go to the oncologist for the first time are stunned by the orderliness of it all. For what, to that person, is as shocking and terrible as suddenly learning that an ax-murderer is hiding in their attic, is not quite so surprising to the professionals they encounter. There are normal receptionists, waiting chairs, and magazines. People smile. Old-timers, who have been doing it for years, are yawning and waiting to get done with it so they can get home and do something else.

Initially, it can seem like a slap in the face: why does everyone not realize that this tragic mortality is consuming every aspect of the new patient's life? But then, like a pleasant drug, oncological procedure makes the patient feel warm and cared-for. "People have done this before," you think. "This is ordinary. This is everywhere." In every city, you can find this stuff. No surprises. The bald thirteen-year-old reading Cosmo isn't even scared, or asking questions, so why should you be?

Keep Positive

A heartwarming, dirty chapter in twentieth century oncology was the well-meaning lie. Cancer was acknowledged as almost utterly terminal for long enough that the physician was taught to be "responsible" and "helpful" through the use of little white lies. As one lecturer said, "...our duty is to keep the patient alive, as long as possible, them being in good spirits will do that better than telling them it's probably only one, two years." It might not have been realistic, but discussions of treatment options (in cancer "treatment" as well as many other branches of medicine) were delivered untruthfully whenever the occasion warranted.

Remember all those scenes in movies where doctors and caregivers pretend that a bullet wound is "nothing" because they know the person is going to die? That trope was borne out of modern medicinal pedagogy's approach that it was better to lie to someone than to scare them. By the time they got back from the Great War, a generation of survivors of trench warfare had learned that what the doc said was probably bullshit, after having watched their friends get eaten alive by "just a flesh wound."

Cancer-wise, treatment prospects never got better, with survival times post-diagnosis remaining roughly the same for treated and un-treated. Physicians did become a little more grimly honest, though, after decades of watching relatives die to chemo had demonstrated, to most of the population, that treatments were not going to be curative--oncologists began gravely imparting to people that this would give them "8-10 years outlook," with regular testing as to progression, instead of telling them that it would "fix" them and get things back to normal, the way they had been in the beginning.

The Postwar Period

Remember trench warfare, secret alliances, and the Red Baron? Remember mustard gas?

Remember the Great Depression, and how, after the first one, the second World War brought in the modern idea of the total propaganda state, government relocation programs, and then commie hunts and Dow Chemical research and all that stuff? How the modern intelligence agency incepted the storing of data on all citizens for the benevolent use of government? How the western trend of random political assassinations of high-profile deviants began, dropping Malcolm and Martin and John and John and expanding to random crowds?

Keep all that stuff in mind as we focus on the history of "oncology." This will later develop into a more comprehensive examination of the era's dangerously childish love affair with radiation, and a primitive attempt to control evolution. For now, though, stick with cancer.

Total War

Sidney Farber, who essentially created modern chemotherapy, was the wealthy son of a Jewish family in New York. He took his education at Harvard, and while working in child pathology (sic), realized that, if he wanted to develop influential new drug treatments, he needed to market them as effectively as manufacturing businesses marketed their own products, and as government marketed war, whether hot or cold.

When chemical warfare documents were declassified "after" World War I, Farber and others realized that mechlorethamine ("mustine"), used to slaughter German and American soldiers as part of mustard gas, could also be used to harm the human body's immune system. The massive cell death resulting from mustine exposure also killed some tumor cells, so by using mathematics to trick stupid people, it could appear that poisoning people was a good thing. For example, if a bank holds one bank robber and fifty bystanders, blowing up the bank kills all the bank robbers, so it must be a good plan, right?

Farber didn't stop at merely poisoning people in Massachusetts. He worked with other wealthy, powerful men in the field to create one of the more blatant profanities of modern medicine: a charity that advertised on behalf of disease. His "Jimmy Fund" took donations from wealthy partygoers in the big cities along the east coast, and used the money to begin encouraging cancer screenings and physician visits across the nation, lobby for governmental funding of more cell-destroying drugs, and to remake all medical schools and journals in favor of using toxic chemicals to fix a problem caused by toxic chemicals.

Farber was not alone in his work. As he spread across the country, the engines of World War II began to turn, ramping up industrial production. Naval foundries dropped millions of tons of steel and rubber runoff into the water. Einstein and other ex-German scientists spread across the country to split the atom, incinerate the Japanese, and begin piling up drums of nuclear waste around America. Fluoride and chlorine pooled into the water supplies, to such an extent that even Obama's CDC in 2011 warned that there might be "too much" of it in tap water for children's health. The rivers ran with tank-tread lubricant, while posters went up warning of the yellow menace and the Nazi menace. X-ray machines began bombarding generations of children, at the airport, dentist's office, and hospital. A potentially-sprained ankle became an opportunity to blast excited photons through developing bone marrow tissue--but at least brave souls like Sidney Farber were there, ready to spend billions of dollars prolonging the lives of endlessly sick, bald, pain-racked leukemia-children. Photographers sprang into action to take pictures of the little heroes filling their rows of deathbeds, and slap their nervous, deathly photographs up on hospital walls and newspapers nationwide, as encouragement to other parents to visit the doctor for early diagnosis via CT scan.

I'm shocked, I tell ya. Invade Afghanistan. Anger locals. Experience blowback. I'm shocked, I tell ya. Invade Afghanistan. Anger locals. Experience blowback. I'm shocked, I tell ya. Invade Afgh--

Just Put On These Glasses

If you're familiar with any one or more of these things, you may be able to draw additional parallels to oncology and our dear friend cancer:

1) America quietly testing newly created chemical and biological weapons on "nigger" soldiers prior to releasing them on the Germans during World War "I";

2) America pretending it didn't do #1 for decades;

3) America having enlisted (but mixed-race!) soldiers witness an atomic bomb blast near the end of World War "II," for educational purposes so that they would know what an atomic bomb blast looked like, thereby exposing them to radiation and learning about the short- and long-term effects;

4) America pretending it didn't do #1 for decades;


5) Agent Orange, rinse and repeat;

6) Depleted uranium, rinse and repeat.

antibiotics staph sanitizer mrsa queers hiroshima fallujah

The Great Chemical War never ended. This is the era of science. There is nothing they won't do. Halloween Parade, people.


  1. Science is the religion of the industrial age. Doctors are its priests, bedecked as they are in their lab coat clerical garb. Residents, nurses and lab techs have served the priesthood well in their roles as dutiful acolytes.

    The post-industrial age has brought with it a significant "reformation" to religious doctrine, that of the elevation of the hospital administrator to the top of the parish hierarchy, and the medical insurance company as the college of cardinals. Sitting atop the medical Holy See is the is the Wall Street financier, whose primary responsibility is to ensure consistency in the propagation of the faith.

    1. Once you get past the impressive buildings, titles, syllabi, and latinate jargon, you're able to see that most education is primarily about believing in the tenets of the field, rather than critical thinking. Luckily, most people are really dazzled by jargon, and they feel that memorizing (or nearly memorizing) enough of it equates to intelligence.

  2. The problem with scientists is that they just want to do science... an they rarely have the capacity, the power, and even the desire to control what they discover. The true humanists among them are not many, and they usually become such at the very end of their careers.

    This is extremely unfortunate, because the average person understandably begins to view science with suspicion and a major anti-science backlash is perfectly understandable - given the uses science has been put to.

    Much like machines, science can be the source of human liberation (material and spiritual), and total enslavement. For now, needless to say, we are still in the enslavement path.

    And I don't really blame scientists for that, the institutional environment of science has nothing to promote humanism or political positions. It is a question of whether the non-scientific institutions will catch up. For now, science is firmly in service of capital.

    In the meantime, anecdotally i see strong correlation between pro-science and pro-authoritarian attitudes.

    1. Religion ate the same thing, perhaps deservedly so, after getting off on itself for centuries. "Galileo" would probably be as disgusted by 21st century science as "Jesus" would by 21st century religion.

      On the aggregate, this one agrees with Dawkins that most (formal, PhD holding) scientists are more intelligent than the average non-scientist, and the thought of "scientists" would certainly make most people feel warm and fuzzy if they were hiking in the Ozarks and came upon a banjo trio. Who wouldn't rather discover, instead, some gawky engineers playing with their Blackberries?

      Once people gain more physical and mental confidence, though, and become less afraid of physical thugs, they're able to be less reverent toward educated protectors. We'll work on that eventually. :)