Cure vs. cause
Stories about Lance Armstrong’s recovery ignored the fast-rising incidence of testicular cancer.
In October 1996, Lance Armstrong, then 25 and the world’s seventh-ranked professional bicyclist, learned he had testicular cancer. The cancer had spread to his lungs, brain and abdomen. He was given a 40 percent chance of survival.
“I intend to beat this disease,” he told reporters.
Armstrong survived, of course—the brain surgery, the grueling rounds of chemotherapy—and went on to seven straight Tour de France titles.
Armstrong’s recovery was received joyously. Headlines like “With Each Day, a Triumph” were standard; thousands of fan letters and emails arrived weekly. In 1999, Armstrong told Bicycling magazine, “The cancer—I owe my life to it. … I wouldn’t be married. I wouldn’t have a kid on the way. And I’m a [better] rider.”
News accounts noted everything from testicular cancer’s predilection for young men to survival tips from psychologists. But readers were rarely, if ever, informed that testicular cancer was becoming increasingly common. In the 20 years preceding Armstrong’s diagnosis, its incidence in the United States had risen by 41 percent. And it has kept rising: By 2007, testicular cancer was 75 percent more common than in 1975.
And no one knows why.
Armstrong himself seemed disinterested in what causes testicular cancer. While his Lance Armstrong Foundation, created in 1997, has distributed countless yellow “Livestrong” wristbands, like most cancer initiatives, it’s all about supporting cancer sufferers, not pursuing root causes.
Or, as Armstrong said shortly after his diagnosis: “I don’t want to waste my time saying, ‘Why me?’ I have a problem, and I want to fix it.”
Armstrong is just one indicator that popular culture prefers “beating” cancer to sussing its source: For every movie about what carcinogens do, like Erin Brockovich, there are 10 Brian’s Songs or 50/50s, celebrating cancer’s noble victims or plucky survivors.
Public officials follow suit. When President Richard Nixon was pushing the National Cancer Act in 1971, he issued a 1,300-word statement. While it briefly acknowledged evidence that “human cancers can be prevented by avoiding exposure to certain chemicals,” just 100 words of the statement concerned prevention. (Seven years after the surgeon general’s announcement that cigarettes cause cancer, Nixon’s statement didn’t even mention smoking.) Nixon’s repeated references to a “cancer cure,” meanwhile, signaled the chief goal.
Critics say those priorities are no accident. As difficult as curing cancer might be, it could be harder to reduce the malignant growth of special interests.
Passing laws to reduce exposure to such chemicals is difficult, partly because of the chemical industry’s political influence. According to OpenSecrets.org, the industry employs nearly 500 federal lobbyists and regularly spends $50 million a year on lobbying; top spenders this year include Dow Chemical, the American Chemistry Council and DuPont Co.
In the meantime, mystery chemicals continue to proliferate, at a clip not even Lance Armstrong could outrace.