Chemo: Prettier in Pink

I share one big difference, and one identical thing, with Steve Jobs. The difference is he’s dead and I’m not. The identical thing is a neuroendocrine tumour on the pancreas. He lived with his for eight years. I’ve known mine for about three months.

I have more money available to fight the tumour than Jobs had. When he died, Jobs was worth about US$10 billion. The Canadian health care budget for 2019 was CAD$264 billion. At current exchange rates, that clocks in at about US$190 billion. I can dip into this bucket of cash whenever I need to buy a bag of carboplatin and there is still enough left over for you to get your colonoscopy.

Neither Jobs nor I need to worry about missing a meal, or falling behind on a mortgage payment, when a hospital bill arrives at the door. Many Americans do, but not the wealthy ones. Canadians have lots of things to worry about, but this isn’t on our list.

True enough, money doesn’t buy everything. If there’s one thing all those billions of dollars – plus billions more raised through various fund raising events and charities – hasn’t bought, it’s a cure for cancer. They haven’t found a big picture cure-all for big picture cancer. Nor have they found a specific cure for any particular flavour of the disease. What the money does buy is new ways to deal with what is already there.

Cancers might all be similar, but there are also important differences. To understand this, consider a westie, a greyhound, and all the other types of dogs in the world. No sooner do you think you know them than they interbreed and you’re suddenly looking at a westiehound you’ve never seen before. It’s still a dog, but it was caused by something you weren’t expecting. In case you’re checking references, you won’t find that explanation in any scientific journal.

Back in the nineties, I took a job with the Workers Health and Safety Centre in Toronto. We developed, promoted, and delivered health and safety training programs. Long story short, we provided workers with tools to recognize and eliminate workplace hazards. Occupational cancers consumed a lot of our attention.

The guiding principles of labour’s approach to occupational cancer have always been that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that we’re better safe than sorry. There is no safe exposure level to carcinogens. The goal is always to identify them and get them out of the workplaces. Unions knew what they were talking about when it came to cancer. Other than nicotine, every known carcinogen was identified through mortality studies on workers.

I was thinking of this the other evening while watching a National Film Board documentary called Pink Ribbons, Inc. It takes a very stern view of the fund raising philanthropy practiced by a lot of corporations that make a lot of money marketing consumer goods to women. You’ll find most of them in the cosmetics aisle of your favourite pharmacy. Avon, Revlon, and Estee Lauder all raise money to find a cure for cancer while loading their hair dye, mascara, and lipstick with carcinogens.

The craziest example of cause-based marketing is probably Astra Zeneca “a pharmaceutical giant that inaugurated October as Breast Cancer Awareness month back in the ’80s. Zeneca manufactures tamoxifen, an anti-estrogenic drug used in some breast cancer treatments, as well as Atrazine, a widely used pesticide that is estrogenic.” Or KFC putting deep-fried chicken in pink buckets and claiming a place in the war against breast cancer. Or Ford’s pink-accented Mustangs.

The money supposedly donated to find a cure is really used to find more effective and efficient ways to treat cancer. Treatment is still based on the slash, burn, and poison tools – surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Don’t get me wrong now. Back in the day, I was full speed ahead on the search for causes. Let nothing stand in its way. Now, I have made room in my heart for the scientists who are looking for better ways to poison me. I’d just like to see a reversal in the spending priorities. If we eliminate exposure to the causes, we’ll take the pressure off the search for a cure.

The research into occupational and environmental cancers at the Workers’ Centre didn’t come anywhere near finding a cure. That’s alright, because no one else has come close to finding one either. On the other hand, we did make it possible for a lot of health and safety activists to clean up their workplaces and for a lot of workers to live cancer-free. That is always time well spent.


  1. sending you good thoughts…interesting and thoughtful writing

  2. Thank you, Al, for always sharing an important message without shouting at the top of your lungs or pounding the table so hard it splinters. Best wishes for continued healing and good writings.

  3. Hear, hear, Alan, on the importance of cancer prevention over massive fund-raising for cures after the fact.And best wishes for your treatment.

  4. Thank you for your work with health & safety. Over the years,my husband has been tested a few times for asbestos exposure. Wishing you continued successful treatments.

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