On Friends Affected by Cancer, and Environment Oncology

Dear Readers,

Yesterday I learned that a woman I know slightly, a journalist, has Stage 4 lung cancer. Debra Sherman is a reporter for Reuters and began a blog, Cancer in Context.  It’s a moving start of what I hope is a long journey.

What struck me is how Debra describes crossing a line, a bit the way I felt when I found out I had breast cancer. She writes:

I have been writing about medical technology and healthcare for more than a decade. I’ve covered the major medical meetings, including the big one on cancer. I’ve written stories about new cancer drugs and treatments…I wrote those stories objectively and never imagined any would ever apply to me.

She’s shifted from what you might call a “straight” reporter to an i-reporter journalist. And although it’s true that Debra may be less objective than some other writers on the subject, she’s already knowledgeable – through her prior work – on many of the relevant terms and issues. Much of what she knows already, vocabulary included, may allow her to make more informed decisions. It’s possible it may enable her to write in a way that helps readers more than ever.

Earth, from space (NASA image, Wiki-commons)

Earth, from space (NASA image, Wiki-commons

I wish her the best with her column, and with her health ahead.

The bigger issue, of which the story reminds me, is that we’re living among too many young and middle-aged people who have cancer. Every day I read or hear of another case among my neighbors, a friend, a blog. Each reminds me of the need for research, better drugs, and greater knowledge of why so many tumor types – including lung cancer in women who haven’t smoked much, and breast cancer in young women – are on the rise.

The ASCO meeting, where believe me I wish I could be but can’t now, offers a bright picture for targeted drugs, genomics, novel immunotherapy and better data access and analyses through a huge new platform called CancerLinQ, All good. Great, really.

In thinking about each new case in my “world” – if I could pick a field for future investigation that might lead to insight on cancer’s causes and, ultimately, reduce the cancer burden 30 and 50 years from now, I might choose the tiny, under-funded area of environmental oncology

That’s a tough field. Most oncologists want to work with patients. Researchers want to publish papers. Cause-and-effect is hard to demonstrate, especially when most of the data is untenable and you’re up against businesses, politics and people who, understandably, don’t recall precisely what they ingested years ago. But to stop cancer from happening so much, that’s where the money is. IMO, nothing more.

All for this week,


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Reading Toms River

When I was a medical resident working at Memorial Sloan Kettering in the late 1980s, some of us joked about the apparently high cancer rate New Jersey. It seemed, though none of us could prove it, that too many of our patients came from the state across the Hudson. Statistics can be tricky, I knew. Sometimes we notice clusters of disease that are just random blips, constellations or flukes.

river landscape, by Frits Thaulow

river landscape, by Frits Thaulow

So when Dan Fagin’s book, Toms River, came out two months ago, I was drawn. The narrative opens with a gripping portrait of a young man whose frame was irrevocably altered by a childhood cancer. It moves on to the history of the small town in central NJ where Ciba, an international chemical company now subsumed by BASF, set up shop in the early 1950s.

The residents hadn’t a clue what was happening to their water. Fagin, an environmental journalist, wades through a half century of dumping, denial, Greenpeace efforts to expose the situation, local citizens’ mixed responses, real estate, some basic and theoretical chemistry, cancer registries and more.

I value this book highly. Toms River could be a lot of places – pretty much anywhere pollution goes unchecked. As the author points out near the end, the problem’s manifest in China now, and elsewhere. It’s a lesson in business ethics, among other things.

The tale intersperses epidemiology and statistics with local politics and individuals’ lives. It reveals just how hard it is to prove cause and effect when it comes to cancer – which, as I’ve said before, is no reason to let industry go unregulated. Because we’ll rarely if ever get definitive, 100%-style evidence that a particular compound causes cancer in humans. Rather, the story points to the need for lowering the threshold for chemicals on the list, and for regulating toxins in manufacturing.

A subtler point, deeper in some ways, is that there are people who don’t want to think about their neighborhood’s water supply or the food they like to eat…”Out of sight and out of mind,” Fagin says in the thick of it. He’s spot-on, there: when a toxic exposure is disconnected from its outcome by decades – and diluted, we tend not to notice or worry.



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News on Occupational Exposure to N-PropylBromide, a Neuro-toxin

Yesterday’s NY Times drew my attention with a front-page article on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and its inability to prevent harm among furniture and cushion factory workers in the U.S.  Even though hundreds of workers in North Carolina handling nerve-damaging glues have developed neurological toxicity, OSHA failed to suppress use of likely chemical culprits.

structure of n-propyl bromide (Wiki-image)

structure of n-propyl bromide (Wiki-image)

Regulating industry is complicated. The Times reporter, Ian Urbina, focuses on a compound, n-propyl bromide, aka nPB or 1-bromopropane, that’s used by “tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation.”

Problem is – it’s hard and possibly impossible, based on studies of factory workers, to prove cause and effect. He writes:

Pinpointing the cause of a worker’s ailment is an inexact science because it is so difficult to rule out the role played by personal habits, toxins in the environment or other factors. But for nearly two decades, most chemical safety scientists have concluded that nPB can cause severe nerve damage when inhaled even at low levels…

The lack of absolute proof – that a particular chemical substance has cause disease in an individual –is exacerbated by the fact that many cushion and glue workers’ symptoms, like numbness and tingling, are subjective: At one company, Royale, a ledger of employees’ illness is said to list “Alleged Neurologic Injury.” This phrase reflects the evaluators’ doubt of the handlers’ complaints and, by insinuation, adds insult to injury – some so severe the workers couldn’t button a shirt, feel a cut, bleeding foot, or stand for more than a few minutes.

The government agency that might respond, OSHA, is woefully understaffed. According to the Times:

“OSHA still has just 2,400 responsible for overseeing roughly eight million work sites — roughly one inspector per 60,000 workers, a ratio that has not changed since 1970. The federal budget for protecting workers is less than half of that set aside for protecting fish and wildlife…

Regulation of industry kills jobs, some say – it’s for this reason that some individuals most likely to suffer harm from manufacturing align with corporations. What’s more, if people lack education about chemistry and need employment, they may not choose or know what’s in their long-term best interests. This piece, like the story of Toms River, points to the unfortunate reality that many citizens tolerate and even take pride in a damaging local business, especially if the health problems it causes are insidious, affect some but not all exposed, and the facts aren’t in full view.


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Confusing Reports On Coffee and Cancer, and What To Do About Breakfast

When I was a medical resident in the late 1980s, we treated some patients with pancreatic cancer on a regimen nick-named the coffee protocol because it included infusions of intravenous caffeine. How absurd, we thought back then, because years earlier caffeine had been linked to pancreatic cancer as a possible cause.

Now, two new studies suggest that coffee consumption reduces a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer, according to MedPage Today:

Women who drank at least five cups of coffee daily had a significantly lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer, an analysis of two large cohort studies suggested.

…Coffee has a paradoxical relationship with breast cancer risk. The beverage’s complex mix of caffeine and polyphenols suggests a potential to confer both carcinogenic and chemopreventive characteristics, the authors noted…

I’m incredulous, still.

As with most compounds we ingest or otherwise absorb, it’s conceivable that caffeine could damage some cells or somehow factor into some tumors’ growth just as it might suppress others, and that the dose matters. The fact is that, like most dietary chemicals, we really don’t know much about its specific effects on any cancer type.

This morning, as usual, I had an early cup of joe with low-fat milk stirred in. I might have a second cup, or a cappuccino with skim milk and cinnamon, in the afternoon. And that’s about it.

When I’m not sure if something’s good or bad for me, or both, I take it in moderation, if at all, if I choose.

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