Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 1998 / 8 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan

Cancer How candidates use American fear of cancer to win votes

CANCER IS A HOT-BUTTON, emotion-charged issue in many of this fall’s political campaigns. If voters were to take some of the latest crop of campaign ads literally, however, he or she would have to conclude that a number of politicians have suddenly acquired medical degrees -- even superpowers -- and that once elected, these new-fledged heroes of the healer’s art will offer their grateful constituents surefire ways to protect themselves from the disease.

But no politician can simply shake a stick at cancer and, by so doing, beat it. What’s more, many of the most vocal "medical politicians" have abandoned scientific realities, and are promising far more than they -- or anyone -- can deliver. Political science is edging out sound science; and the resultant politicized "science" is fueling public misconceptions of cancer risk, generating misguided health policies, and distracting all of us (and much of our money) from established—and preventable "causes of cancer."

For many politicians, the real value of these "cancer crusades" lies not in their importance to public health, but in their appeal to voters --- and especially to women voters. New York’s Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato is a leading example. D’Amato plays the cancer card regularly as a way to attract and hold the votes of women who might otherwise gravitate to the Democrats. He characterizes himself as an advocate of women’s health, a fighter for more breast cancer research and better medical coverage for breast cancer-related procedures, and the man responsible for ridding Long Island of alleged cancer-causing agents lurking in the environment.

Neighboring New Jersey has its own cancer crusaders, politicians such as Democratic Senator Robert G. Torricelli, who cry "cancer cluster!" in towns like Tom’s River and then offer their "protection" to worried residents in exchange for their votes.

Meanwhile, a classic case of political one-upmanship is being played out down south. North Carolina Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth and Democratic challenger John Edwards are sparring over who has taken the toughest stance on breast cancer. Trumpets one of Faircloth’s ads: "To most people, a stamp is a way to send a letter. For one man, it’s a way to provide hope. Now when you use this special postage stamp, more money goes to breast cancer research."

Not to be outdone, Edwards shoots back: "It’s going to take more than a postage stamp to cover up Lauch Faircloth’s poor record on women’s health."

And so on.

In nearby South Carolina, Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings has run TV ads in which two breast cancer survivors praise him for fighting to protect women. But here, as in many other similar ad campaigns, the voter is never told just how Hollings’ battle against cancer will be won.

Whatever the disease-fighting strategies being planned, though, one thing’s for sure: This war is really about politics, not cancer.

The problem with these campaigns has nothing to do with whether or not breast cancer -- or any cancer - is a worthy "cause." Of course it is. It’s estimated that in 1998 over 40,000 women will die of breast cancer. It’s a disease that has taken a terrible toll, both on sufferers and on their families. And heightened breast cancer awareness and advances in medicine together will continue to improve treatment and prevention.

The real problem with most of the cancer-driven political campaigns is that politicians are exploiting the public’s fear of cancer for their own gain, and political agendas are having an effect on how we allocate our already scarce public health resources. Breast cancer in particular -- a cancer that has received widespread media attention -- has proved to be the perfect political pawn. Cancer-crusader candidates are encouraging misconceptions of cancer risk --- and squandering our money.

Furthermore, in their quest for votes, many of these politicians are irresponsibly overlooking scientific realities. Despite what voters are being told, there is no cancer epidemic in this country. Americans are living longer and healthier lives today than at any time in our history. Environmental causes of cancer, and particularly of breast cancer, have not been established. Instead of targeting trace levels of chemicals in the environment as potential carcinogens and pointing to "cancer clusters" (isolated pockets of higher incidence, evidence of the existence of which remains largely unsupported), we should be focusing our attention and our resources on scientifically established, preventable risk factors for cancer: smoking, poor nutrition, obesity, and overexposure to sunlight.

New approaches in drug therapy directed at the prevention of cancer may also prove to be effective strategies worthy of support.

Cancer, in its many forms, is the second leading cause of death in the United States. But Americans should be wary of allowing political agendas to direct the allocation of our limited public health dollars. Instead, we should give more attention to adopting healthier lifestyles. And politicians who are serious about "fighting" cancer should stick to the facts—and put our money where it counts.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health. The full ACSH report is available by clicking here.


©1998 ACSH.