& ENVIRONMENT - JUNE 12,
in which a columnist says goodbye
got two melanomas, Dr. Breen, my oncologist, told me. You
have a 70 percent chance of surviving the next five years.
But survive I have. On May 14, 2002, I celebrated my 10th anniversary
of being cancer free. For this I am most indebted to my loving wife,
Joy, and my good friend Jim. And, I believe, to my own persistence,
perhaps a relic of my Irish forebears. My life over the past decade
has been a soul journey. Theres nothing like the fear of death
to give you a swift kick in the bottom.
The dark pigments of melanoma are tricky and unpredictable. In 2001
the dread disease struck 50,000 in the United States. There were 7,000
deaths from it that year. Its the fastest growing cancer in the
world. In 1950 it struck about 1 in 150. Today one in 75 of you will
get it. Caught early theres no reason for a single person to die
So far it was caught early enough for John McCain, Troy Aikman, Clint
Eastwood and Sam Donaldson. But sadly it was not for Maureen Reagan,
Bob Marley and rising folk-musician star Eva Cassidy, gone at 33.
I was diagnosed just six months after arriving in Michigan from Philadelphia
to pursue my Ph.D. in medical anthropology at MSU. Thats a field
whose origins are in studying alternate healing systems across the world,
from shamanism and herbal medicine to osteopathy and homeopathy here
in the United States. Ironically, if I was going to get cancer there
wasnt a better field to study.
In anthropology we learn that mainstream medicine is quite limited in
its abilities to prevent and restore health. But the official advertising
is very good. Technological advances in areas such as organ replacement,
magnetic resonance imagery and in vitro-fertilization are frequently
cited as evidence that U.S. medicine is the best in the world.
Emergency medicine, celebrated on TV dramas like ER is a
triumphant metaphor for a culture oriented to speed and beholden to
a belief in technological salvation.
There is a wealth of evidence that sociocultural, environmental, psychological,
political, economic and biological factors interact at any one time
in either disturbing or enhancing health. Tens of millions resort to
self-care and alternative medicine. And thousands of medical professionals
break ranks to document the relationships of social support to cancer
survival see Spiegels classic study of metastatic breast
cancer patients or to show the links of environmental toxins
to cancer as the full page ads in the New York Times by Mt. Sinai
Hospital evidenced two weeks ago.
Ambiguity and uncertainty are the rules when it comes to understanding
health and disease.
Which makes Mondays news all the more troubling. The Lansing State
Journal, mimicking the medias tendency nationally toward shallow
disease-of-the-day reporting, headlined a front-page article, Gene
blamed for skin cancer [melanoma]. Quoting from a study in the
journal Nature, the mainstream press announced that the gene
discovered as part of the Cancer Genome project is blamed for
70 percent of cases of melanoma, my cancer. The press reported that
the gene underwent a spontaneous mutation.
Beginning next week, Dave Dempsey will write the Health &
Environment column. Dempsey is policy adviser for the Michigan
Environmental Council, a Lansing-based coalition for over 50 environmental
was program director and state director of Clean Water Action
from 1991 to 1994. President Clinton appointed him to serve on
the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, on which he served from 1991
until last year. He is the author of Ruin and Recovery:
Michigans Rise as a Conservation Leader, an environmental
history of the state. Dempsey is a lifelong resident of Michigan.
He has a B.A. from Western Michigan University and a masters
degree in resource development from MSU. His column will appear
media thus reinforced several central biomedical assumptions about cancer
etiology: the idea that in most cases, cancer is caused by just one
microscopic, biological element that is largely out of your control.
Whether or not there is a genetic predisposition to melanoma, the discovery
says nothing about the specific conditions that make a cancer gene get
turned on inappropriately (by toxins, radiation and so on), or the likelihood
that various forms of treatment (nutritional, psychological, social)
will help cure you. It says nothing about the personality features linked
to getting cancer or the felt experience of having the disease, which
cancer researcher Lydia Temoshok carefully documents in her excellent,
The Type C Connection, the Behavioral Links to Cancer and Your
In her several government-supported studies Temoshok documented that
melanoma patients tend to be overly compliant to external authority,
appeasing to others, emotionally non-expressive, other-directed and
self-sacrificing. She found that those melanoma patients who are able
to learn to get in touch with their anger, openly question external
authority, more fully express their emotions and become inner-directed
by articulating a better defined meaning of life were more
likely to survive their melanomas than those who remained non-expressive.
This leader within the alternative cancer movement is but one of many
scientists in the social medicine school of theorist Aaron Antonovsky,
who essentially argued that in addition to social support and
resources we all need to have a mental sense of coherence
about our lives to ward off the noises of our environment.
Its called salutogenesis.
In addition, Temoshok and thousands of other scientists have shown how
environmental carcinogens in our air, water and food as well as viruses
and radiation are factors that disturb the machinery of the cell.
My own journey since my diagnosis has followed Temoshoks advice.
And I have been aided and abetted by people like City Pulse editor and
publisher Berl Schwartz, who gave me this column!
So, soon after diagnosis I set my sights on learning as much as possible
about how I got sick and how I might stay alive. Joy arranged an appointment
with Jim Sparandeo, an alternative nutritionist in Philly who worked
closely with two oncologists. He instructed me to drink green bancha
tea, take Kyolic garlic capsules, imbibe Omega 3 oil and begin a daily
regimen of carrot juicing. We did so for several years.
Joy and I decided to have a child and succeeded with the birth of our
daughter Oonagh in 1997. It was the happiest day of our lives. And you
know what? It just gets better!
With an eye on my limited mortality (hey, none of us gets out of here
alive), I redoubled my efforts to become the social medicine scholar,
writer and activist that was my motivation for coming to Michigan in
the first place. Whenever I see important health-related data suppressed,
as it often is in areas like environmental health, I feel that it is
my ethical duty to expose it. According to Temoshok, it might even help
me live longer!
The truth is in the whole, not in the partial specializations of biomedicine.
I credit some biomedical professionals for diagnosing my melanoma and
providing needed surgeries, but I do not consider them sufficient for
my survival, or my personal transformations. Besides, I should point
out that nearly a score of doctors missed diagnosing my skin cancer
for years, something that is still sadly true for so many patients who
do not receive the full-body scan as part of their primary care physicals.
In line with my life course I am now beginning a new phase in my journey
as the executive director of LocalMotion, a grass-roots, solutions-driven,
organization dedicated to raising awareness about the connections between
environmental toxins and negative health consequences, including cancer.
Its based in Ann Arbor.
I am very excited about this new endeavor and shall do all in my efforts
to help continue its success. Therefore I am taking a sabbatical from
the column. But were putting it in great hands. Dave Dempsey,
the policy adviser for the Michigan Environmental Council, will take
the reins. As column readers know, hes terrific. Salud!