07 September 2008

"Stand up 2 Cancer?" Try, "Bow Down to Industry"

Ten weeks ago, I had colon resection surgery for a malignant polyp. At 36 years old, I had cancer. I have been a vegetarian for nearly 15 years, have not eaten red meat in nearly 20 years, and have been physically fit my entire life - I was even a college athlete. I possessed exactly zero risk factors (as defined by the ever knowledgeable medical industry) for such a malady. In fact, I had numerous “anti-” risk factors that should have placed me at negative odds of acquiring cancer at all. My reality belies these erroneous beliefs about health and cancer. A great number of our common health problems and syndromes (I refuse to term them diseases, because “disease” connotes known specific causes) can be attributed to our atrociously unhealthy lifestyles and western diets that lack nutrition. Cancer is not one of them. The notion that good nutrition, fitness, health and well-being prevent cancer is fallacious. And the unwavering hope that we will find a cure to this epidemic is just as flawed.

Cancer stems from carcinogens. Carcinogens are agents that promote mutations in DNA, which promulgate the uncontrolled growth and division of useless cells that may interfere with the normal cellular, organ, and system functions in the body. This is about all we truly know about cancer. Yes, much research has been conducted for decades about the life cycle and progression of this illness, but most results are nothing more than theoretical and dubious. Recently there has been a lot of discussion and endorsement of supposed “cancer genes", which are said to be inherited. Much of what has been stated as fact flies in the face of everything that scientists believe about evolutionary biology. According to evolutionary theories, undesirable traits (such as cancer) would in time decrease in the gene pool because of natural selection and normal mutations. Yet cancer continues to increase at an alarming rate. Last I heard, in 2004 in America, one in every two men will develop cancer in their lifetimes, while one in every three women will develop cancer. This is not because we are living longer and thus have more time to develop the illness. Discounting infant mortality rates and those who perished young from infectious disease, Americans are not living longer than those hundreds of years ago who made it through infancy and infection. Cancer is striking Americans at younger and younger ages. When my grandparents were my age, they knew no peers who suffered from cancer and barely knew anyone who had cancer. When my parents were my age, they knew no peers who had cancer and a couple of older-aged people who had the illness. I have personally known at least a dozen peers with cancer, and have known at least a three who have perished, including a close friend. So why are so many of us young, strong, healthy individuals contracting cancer? Because of carcinogens.

Some carcinogens exist in nature, but most result from industrial technology. The vast majority of synthetic chemicals, which do not exist in nature, were introduced to the world as recently as the late 1940s. Many if not all of these are carcinogenic, either in their original form or as by-products. In the decades following their inception, cancer rates in the general population have exploded. Cancers were once most exclusively linked to workers’ exposure to carcinogens in their jobs. These chemicals have now spread through our air, water supply, and through our use of consumer goods. In addition, cancer-causing radiation from technologies – such as television, nuclear power, microwave ovens, and cellular phones – is present now when it was nonexistent in the recent past. It is assumed that these levels of radiation are safe. Yet even if the levels are safe in isolation, there is absolutely no research that exists to qualify their cumulative safety effects. Most notably, radiation exposure is highest through medical care itself. According to the proceedings of the 2001 international joint conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the European Commission, The Pan American Health Organization, and the World Health Organization, medical procedures - X-rays, CT Scans, radiation therapy – are the most significant source of human-made radiation exposure to the public by far. Clearly, cancer is a result of industrial pollution of the biosphere and of industrial technology, not of unlucky inheritance. It is quite convenient that we are being blamed for the misfortune of our own cancer via heredity while none of the carcinogen-producing industries is indicted at all.

As for cancer therapy, little has changed since Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer near the time of my birth. Three main remedies exist – surgery, radiation treatment, and chemotherapy. The latter two cause cancer themselves. Moreover, many of the major diagnostic tools for detecting cancer, such as mammography, CT scans, and fluoroscopy expose patients to extremely high levels of radiation. Their safety is increasingly coming into question as evidenced by articles in major media outlets such as CBS, ABC, MSNBC, US News and World Report, and Time magazine, based on peer-reviewed scientific research. The futile quest for an elusive singular cure to a complex but preventable set of illnesses is a waste of time and money. This search has been conducted for at least half a century now, to little or no avail. But does that mean we just have to live with cancer? Solutions exist. Prevention exists. However, prevention does not mean early detection. Prevention means elimination of carcinogens.

Two years ago, I underwent a barium enema to attempt to discover the source of some digestive trouble. Barium enemas do not necessarily detect cancer, but they do discover growths of any size. They also consist of a series of x-rays of the colon – in my case over a dozen. At the time, I joked to my partner, “If I don’t have cancer now, I will after all of this.” I did not have cancer then. The x-rays showed no signs of any growths large or small. Now, two years after that enormous radiation exposure, I am no longer laughing. That same month, an acquaintance of mine from my childhood died from metastatic cancer at the age of 31; also, a close friend of mine died of (originally) ovarian cancer at the age of 38. My friend’s cancer story began with benign cysts. Two years later, cancer was detected. Her therapy consisted of aggressive treatment – including pinpointed radiation to an area of her body where she later developed bone tumors from which she died. Her doctors were surprised at the way in which her cancer had jumped to her bones. It was so rare, indeed, that they wrote journal articles about her case. They never thought to question their own radioactive therapy.

We need to be open to changing our lives. We ought to adopt policies that favor human and environmental health over economic health (i.e. growth) – the Precautionary Principle, for example. We must gain the wisdom to value natural living things such as ourselves, otherwise the artificial economy upon which we choose to base our entire existence is liable to outlive us all.

The term cancer “survivor” offends me. It disrespects my fit and healthy friend who did not survive. It discounts the millions of those who have not survived. I live now, but for how long? How much longer will my body tolerate all of its exposure to carcinogenic agents? Unfortunately, as a biotic organism, I must continue to breathe (polluted) air and drink (polluted) water as a necessity to survive. My impeccable diet and healthy lifestyle – and those of so many others – do not immunize us from toxic poisoning. We will surely not even come close to suffering from diabetes or heart disease, but until carcinogens are eliminated, we will always be at risk for cancer.

I am not a cancer survivor. I am a cancer victim. I am a victim of industry. After 36 years with not a single medical event, my body has now undergone manipulation and mutilation as the result of cancer surgery. I have an eight-inch scar on my abdomen. My formerly robust abdominal muscles are trying to be of use again. My intestines are attempting to discover their new function as a result of being in a new location in my gastrointestinal tract – sometimes unsuccessfully. I am annoyed with everyone clinging to false hope and not dealing with reality. I am disgusted with telethons such as “Stand up 2 Cancer” that feed money into the same medical industry that irradiates us, but does not touch upon the causes of this preventable epidemic. We cannot tolerate this toxic, carcinogenic world that we have created to satisfy our needs for useless and wasteful consumer technologies – our bodies cannot tolerate it. If we do not stop allowing “acceptable levels” of carcinogenic agents, if we do not stop choosing economic growth over public health, if we do not stop feeding our insatiable hunger for unnecessary products and production of “goods’ (I prefer to call them “bads”), if we do not stop enduring incredible harm from industry, if we do not stop depending on experts alone rather than relying on common sense grounded in well-informed education, and if we do not stop seeking a single, reductionist scientific solution to a complex problem that is too cumulative and aggregate in nature for science to deal with, then we are doomed.

23 August 2008

The Tribute That Should Have Been (RIP my wonderful Nanny)

I wanted to say a few words about my grandmother - Nanny, as we grandchildren called her - because she was one of my favorite people on the planet. Being with Nanny and speaking with her always brought me great joy, just as it brought her joy to be with her grandchildren. Though it never felt like it at the time, our conversations were always a learning experience. From her I learned not only how to cook, but how to give, how to sacrifice, how to be strong, how to deal with life’s difficulties, and most of all, how to give and receive unconditional love.
 
From a young age, I delighted in visiting my grandparents. Those weekly visits to their Yonkers home, and then to their home in Bethel, enabled me to learn to cook from the master. I’ll never forget all the years of “caving” the cavatelli macaroni and leaving pounds of it to dry on the dining room table. We could never get to eating it soon enough. Every time I came over to my Nanny’s home, she had the most delectable leftovers in her fridge and was ready to serve up any one of them as I walked through the door. It is impossible to recount all of the wonderful meals she made for us all. It was funny, because my grandfather (my Poppop) would always volunteer her services, saying, “Anything you want, Nanny will make it for you.” And of course, Nanny would happily oblige. Thankfully, I can still carry on making some of the traditional food she made, perhaps not as perfectly as she did, but I don’t know that there is anyone left who will ever be able to duplicate her stupendous manicotti.

In addition to being an outstanding chef, Nanny was such a generous woman. She never failed to sacrifice for those she loved, first in her roles as sister and daughter then wife, mother, and grandmother. Like most women of her time, she surrendered much of herself to those around her. I noticed this most after my Poppop passed away. I used to drive up from my home in D.C. about once a month to visit and try to help Nanny with what she might need – which was always nothing because she never asked for anything. Often I would offer to take her for a drive or ask her what she wanted to do, and she constantly replied, “Whatever you want to do.” I don’t think Nanny knew how to express her own desires. I think she was always busy helping everyone else. Though I wish Nanny had indulged herself on occasion, I think her demonstration of self-sacrifice is an example we could use more of in this all-too self-centered world.

Most of you know that Nanny was a woman of few words. However, her silence shouldn’t be mistaken for meekness. Her quiet demeanor belied her strength and fortitude. She had big hands – which I inherited from her and which I was once told signify an ability to handle things well. And that she did. She was “green” before her time as she never drove a car and always walked everywhere she needed to go. There was no such thing as a gym for Nanny. She used to walk miles to the center of town from her home in Bethel, hiking up a long steep hill at the end of the journey – and this occurred when she was in her seventies and eighties. During those same years, she used to cook her famous Italian omelet in her heavy cast iron-pan, flipping the entire pan over with one arm, and telling ME not to help her because it was too heavy. In her nineties, I had the pleasure of watching her take an exercise class in her retirement home. Not only was she the most nimble, she was one of the oldest participants and one of the few who never needed a walker of wheelchair to travel. And boy could she still cut a rug!

Nanny had an inner-strength, too. She dealt with more tragedies than anyone should have experienced in one lifetime, but she handled them with grace and courage. I don’t know how many people are aware of how she reacted when my grandfather died. From downstairs in their home, she heard him drop to the floor. She called 911 and raced upstairs to give him CPR – which she had never been trained to do. She was 81 years old at the time. She never complained, always telling me on the phone that she “had no aches or pains” and she was “doing great.” I even spoke to her the morning that she passed. She was in the emergency room awaiting surgery, clearly in pain, yet she assured me that she was OK and she felt fine.

Even as Nanny reached her nineties and could not necessarily recall what she had eaten at her last meal, she had a keen awareness of people and things around her. She was always observing and absorbing. I’d sit with her when I visited, sometime silently, and watch her look around. I could see the wheels in her mind turning and I’d asked her what she was thinking about. She’d just give me a sly smile and I’d have to pry out what she had been analyzing. At other times, I’d call her when I’d had a bad day. When she asked how I was doing, I’d put on my best happy voice so as not to bother her and say, “I’m doing ok,” to which she’d reply, “Just OK?” She could tell. Another funny observation she made was when I’d tell her that I wish I could be there with her, and that I think about her often. She’d reply, “Well, you’re not my granddaughter for nothin’!”

After nearly 96 years, Nanny knew that life came with its good and bad. She was not one to see the glass as half full, but not one to see the glass as half empty, either. She just saw the glass for what it was. Recently I’d been feeling sad that I did not see Nanny as often as I’d like and I kept telling her on the phone how much I wished I were there with her. She always responded, “Well, we just have to make the best of it.” That philosophy allowed her to carry on for so long. I think it was a realistic, healthy one that we all would do well to follow so that maybe we could have such a long and loving life as my wonderful grandmother.

Oh, and by the way, Nanny often said to me that she thought she’d “hit the jackpot,” meaning that she’d live to be 100 years old. Well, she didn’t quite hit that jackpot, but we all hit the jackpot in having her in our lives.

And now, to celebrate her, here is her favorite song, which she had taken to singing beautifully to us all in the latter years of her life …

I’ll be loving you always
With a love that’s true always.
When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand always.

Always.

Days may not be fair always,
That’s when I’ll be there always.
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
But always.


© Irving Berlin

19 July 2008

Look Away


My life partner and I sometimes take out DVDs from our local library here in Grand Forks, North Dakota. These disks are in appalling condition, full of scratches, gouges, congealed gunk, and a wide sampling of malodorous particles. It is true that these materials get used a lot, but certainly no more than the rentals from local video stores, which rarely suffer from the same kind of calamities. As we try to repair the carnage visited upon these disks so they will play in my computer, we try to visualize what people must be doing to ruin the materials. We envision Frisbee-type tossing that degenerates into even less advised drunken household stunts; we even imagine folks using the disks as mini plates from which fork-worthy victuals are carelessly tined.

Why all the respect for rentals and not for the library loans? The first thing that pops to mind is that we might be held accountable for rentals but that library stuff is free. Pushing it slightly further brings us to this: we respect what we have to pay for. Paying for things is our sacred duty, and we take this very seriously. Forget that libraries are funded with our taxes. That concept contains a distance that separates us from the expense.

Creating distance is vital to us and always has been to those sitting atop any hierarchy of destruction. It is the same distance that separates the killing of people far away from a job we may have in, say, a munitions factory or on Wall Street that trades shares for that factory or in some unrelated job that has a pension fund containing shares from the company that thrives off the profits of the munitions factory. We may be half a world away, occupied all day with what seem like mundane, peaceful activities, but our involvement in state murder in Iraq or Afghanistan or Viet Nam or East Timor or any other place we try to control through violence is linked to what we do every day, and to our very way of life.

This separation is so important that we use denial and anger to maintain it when we are faced with the truth about the way we live. A biased media, owned by the global corporations that benefit from the destruction of the planet and its inhabitants, aid us in this endeavor to distance ourselves from our complicity. As a result, and since we are surrounded by people in the same situation as ourselves, we feel pretty good about our claims that we are not complicit in the many atrocities that are committed around the world by “We the People.” We might even re-label such actions as “spreading democracy” or “insuring freedom” or even “self-defense.”

This distancing and denial is so powerful and automatic that as soon as this article jumped from a vapid discussion of something safe, like damaged library materials, and skidded into territory that might cast an aspersion towards the reader, I probably lost the majority of my audience. We look away if we aren’t complimented or made to feel good. If you did not stop reading, you might have experienced at least an urge to do so, most likely an unconscious one. It might have even manifested itself with a physical distancing of your body from these words, or an actual removal of attention to some distraction, a phone call or an email, perhaps. Don’t feel bad if this is so. We are programmed to do this by our corporate masters.

Sound crazy? Am I a conspiracy theorist or an ecology nut? Now that I have been labeled as such, should I not now be dismissed and forgotten, along with my ideas?

One of the TV series my life partner and I have been watching is “The X-Files.” We both have noticed that whenever Mulder presents evidence concerning a mutant or a UFO or whatever paranormal thing he investigates, that he is immediately rebuffed and labeled as crazy or as a conspiracy theorist or whatever other pigeon hole that allows him to be comfortably dismissed. Of course, this is because the notions Mulder describes in those shows lie outside the accepted confines of the assumptions of the culture, so he is thought to be crazy, even if he has very convincing scientific data like in the case of that liver-eating guy, the mutant Tooms. No one would listen to his evidence, compelling or not. It isn’t because they disagreed with his facts. It isn’t because they had a better explanation. Mulder wasn’t heeded because the listeners are part of the paradigm, and they will not shift from their position because then where would they be? They would be living in a world they could not understand. They would be lost.

One doesn’t have to talk about mutants or UFOs to get dismissed as a kook in our culture. Simple truths about the way the world works suffices. The distance from our own place in the world is there because without it we would be lost. Who would we be? What would we do with ourselves if we knew that we are participating in a system that commits violence against others of our own species to keep the our paradigm of economic growth in place, that chokes non-human species into oblivion, that destroys the very state of the planet that allows us to survive?

If you are still reading this, you might be wondering exactly what our complicity is. That is simple. We see ourselves as consumers. Instead of realizing that consuming wreaks havoc upon the world, we prefer to believe that this is a good thing to do. We are told this by people who insist that everything boils down to money—not life. Ours is a toxic relationship of codependence with global corporations that control our government and, hence, its military, global corporations that exploit workers here and especially overseas to externalize costs, global corporations that rely upon the inability of reductionist science to prove environmental harms, thereby allowing them to continue to pollute and tear up the world, unregulated. As a result, our economic juggernaut crashes onward, aimed at life’s total destruction. Meanwhile, we are told that low prices and an obsession with fancy gadgetry is all there is to life. Since we prefer not to see ourselves at the apex of this pyramid of mindless destruction, since we prefer to distance ourselves from the costs we impose upon other life and the planet, we continue operating within the paradigm, looking up occasionally from our texting or our pointless phone calls to shake our heads at the tragedy of it all as the world burns down around us.

15 May 2008

Our New Paradigm


In the May 12, 2008, UK paper The Guardian, David Adam reported that “carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached a record high…[and] climate change could begin to slide out of control.” He went on to write that scientific models assumed half of our future CO2 emissions would be reabsorbed by forests and oceans, but that these assumptions “may be too optimistic.” Of course, CO2 isn’t the only crisis in our world, but let’s set the shortcomings of scientific reductionism aside for the moment.

The fact that CO2 emissions are increasing is no surprise. Look locally. Is there a decrease of driving in your town or city? Besides the handful of folks that are walking or biking, not even high gas prices diminish driving. Couple that with the abundance of vehicles that get eight to twelve miles per gallon, and it might appear to the casual observer that there is no climate crisis or even a fuel shortage.

Do we need to drive every time we go out? Are we really too busy to walk? Is that trip to the big box store down the road necessary? Or are we too self-absorbed to recognize the way commercial interests have taught us to live? There is an irrational notion inculcated in “civilized” cultures that assumes economics and especially gadgetry (that we must buy) solves all problems. In truth, gadgetry causes harms. Our most sophisticated gadgets by far are implements of war. Are we just “boys (and girls) with toys” caring only for instant gratification?

If we are merely selfish, pursuing instant gratification, we are utterly lost. However, if we care about saving the planet and all the species that dwell upon it (including our own children), we must change the way we live. Markets will not solve our problems; they created them in the first place with deregulation, pollution, worker exploitation, manipulation of our minds through advertising, and unchecked greed.

As individuals, we must first and foremost reduce our ravenous and unnecessary consumption, reuse things rather than stuff them into landfills, and as a last resort, recycle the things we must discard. We need to stop or at least reduce driving in favor of our more “primitive” means of ambulation. Besides, it’s good for us.

Will these steps solve all the problems we’ve created? Well, no, not with economics being the sole paradigm of all decisions and actions in our “advanced” culture, but at least we could mitigate our own contributions to problems that are “slid[ing] out of control.” That way, instead of feeling that any talk of climate change is a personal attack due to our complicity in the system, we can eliminate our anger, denial, and our cynical business-as-usual attitude, and become examples of a new paradigm. We might as well learn to live more simply so we can teach our children how to do it. They need to be ready for when they have no choice in the matter. And let’s face it—that’s tomorrow.

Burden in My Hand*: The U.S. Medical Industrial Complex

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