By Heather Millar
Last week, a family friend and neighbor found out that he has lung cancer. He’s in his 80s. In the email announcing his diagnosis, his partner noted that it’s a bad news/good news thing. Bad news: he has cancer. Good news: It’s slow growing and he’ll only have to take a pill for now. No chemo, no surgery, no radiation.
A couple of days later, I ran into this newly minted cancer patient while we were both walking our dogs.
“It’s weird. I feel fine,” he said. “But think of all the people on the block who’ve had cancer. There’s you, there’s me …”
Then he launched into a litany of about 10 neighbors who battled, or died from, cancer in the last several decades. “You know,” the retired high school teacher said conspiratorially. “I think it’s that tower.” He pointed to Sutro Tower, the 977-foot broadcast antenna that can be seen almost anywhere in San Francisco.
When disaster strikes, it’s natural to look for scapegoats.
I’m skeptical that a radio-TV tower caused my breast cancer, or his lung cancer, or any of the other cancers on our block. Yet I’d be willing to bet that, as a species, we ARE probably causing some kinds of cancer by polluting our environment, by stressing ourselves out, by eating and drinking things that aren’t good for us, and by exposing ourselves to different kinds of radiation.
For instance, just yesterday, the World Health Organization ruled that diesel exhaust causes cancer. After analyzing published studies, evidence from animals, and limited research on humans, a panel of experts in Lyon, France announced that the threat from diesel exhaust may be as great as the threat from second-hand cigarette smoke.
Of course, the argument isn’t stopping there. The US government still classifies diesel exhaust as a “probable,” but not a definite, carcinogen. Dissenting scientists are giving media interviews, urging people not to freak out and saying the danger is probably greatest for those who work near diesel engines: truck drivers, miners, and the like.
The problem is proof: How much diesel exhaust does it take to cause cancer? How do you track people’s exposure? How do you measure cause and effect? If diesel exhaust causes tumors in lab animals, is that enough proof? How much data from human studies should be required to prompt official action?
These kinds of questions explain why so much cancer news gives us all cognitive whiplash: Soy causes breast cancer. Or maybe it doesn’t. Stress contributes to cancer, or maybe it doesn’t. Drinking alcohol may give you cancer, but then again, in moderate amounts it may protect you from rogue cells dividing out of control.
As cancer patients, we want answers. Unfortunately, science is a back-and-forth debate.
Still, it makes sense to me that diesel exhaust contributes to cancer. Exhaust is full of particles and tars and traces of carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde. That sounds a lot like cigarette smoke, doesn’t it? These days, it would be amazing to hear authorities question the link between cancer and smoking.
Scientists will continue to duke it out, trying to prove how we are, and aren’t, making ourselves sick.
In the meantime, I think, the cancer patient’s best defense is common sense.
It’s probably not a great idea to lock yourself in a garage with an idling diesel engine. It’s probably not smart to smoke cigarettes. You probably should not drink or eat too much. Fetishize different foods or behaviors, if you will. But just remember: a new study will come out before you know it.