Cancer screening, “early detection,” and the Emperor’s New Clothes

President Richard Nixon declared the “war on cancer” in 1971. Yet cancer rates have generally gone up ever since.

Of course, as in all wars, the declaration of war on cancer just signaled, “let the government spending begin.”

The cancer spending spree even affected my career…

Twelve years after Nixon declared the war on cancer, I had completed all my medical and graduate training and was ready to do full-time research. At the time, the National Institutes of Health was THE place for serious medical research. But President Reagan was in his first term in office and was trying to get control over the bloated federal budget. So, there was a government hiring freeze everywhere, including at NIH.

But the hiring freeze did not affect the National Cancer Institute (NCI) specifically.

They had so much money, they needed to hire more people to spend it all. They were even giving money away to the People’s Republic of China for cancer studies over there (which did present some unique opportunities if they had known how to do field work in Asia)

So, off I went to the NCI, hoping to continue my research into the REAL causes of common cancers. I didn’t stand it very long there, as my superiors tried to shut down my nutritional research at every turn. But two years later, I was promoted to an Associate Medical Director at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where I had the freedom and opportunity to continue my work. They even awarded me their Young Investigator Award for best research by a scientist under age 40 for research that the NCI had prevented me from publishing!

In the meantime, the more money the government spent on cancer, the more cancer rates went up. Or perhaps more aptly stated, the more “cancer” they found.

We all felt discouraged. But of course, at the NCI, they felt it just meant they needed to spend even more money on cancer.

But they had it all backwards.

More money finds more “cancer”

The more the government spent on cancer, the more resources and incentives there were to “find cancer,” with ever more screenings, diagnoses and treatments.

They now even have a public health goal and technical name for this frenzied pursuit of more cancer. They call it “secondary prevention.” They claim if they find a cancer early enough, while it’s supposedly still treatable, it’s basically like preventing it.

Turns out, they should never have called millions of these small, early growths they found through early detection by the name “cancer” at all, because the growths wouldn’t have gone on to affect the patient’s life if left alone. So the more apt name for much of this early detection approach is “gross overdiagnosis” and “overtreatment.”

To this day, many patients remain convinced some cancer screening or treatment “saved their life.” But recent evidence suggests their lives were never at risk in the first place!

The cancer industry continues to bully patients with fear. The patients who get an early cancer diagnosis pay the escalating costs and deal with the added risks, worries, and inconveniences because they fear the alternative. But it’s all for nothing — except to fuel the profitable cancer industry.

This “early diagnosis” mindset also leads to useless, harmful treatments for millions of healthy people. In fact, new data show just how bad and pervasive this “non-cancer” epidemic is. As I reported previously, a 2013 report commissioned by the NCI itself revealed that 1.3 million patients were wrongly, misdiagnosed with cancer.

Plus, as with everything else the government subsidizes, cancer funding drove up cancer treatment prices. So today, we have outrageously expensive cancer screenings and treatments, but they only confer marginal benefits. In fact, the cancer industry today is sometimes willing to spend 100 times more to try to achieve only a one percent possible improvement in outcome.

That kind of accounting never works for anyone but those who stand to gain a profit. According to my colleague Gina Kolata (who I mentioned last week for her investigation into a cholesterol drug), 80 percent of oncologists’ incomes comes from infusing cancer drugs in their offices. No wonder they push treatments for small, early “cancers.”

Don’t worry, they say, we found it early, so we can treat it.

Maybe they found it so early, it’s not really even there!

Sounds a bit like the weavers in the Hans Christian Anderson tale who said they could make a new set clothes for the Emperor out of the finest fabric in the land. They told the Emperor the fabric would appear invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid.” So the Emperor, the ministers, and all the townsfolk went along admiring the invisible clothes.

The FDA is a huge part of this problem

The FDA keeps approving drugs that do very little to improve survival rates or quality of life, so big pharma and oncologists keep making money off them. Critics believe these treatments actually shorten lifespans and destroy quality of life, as well as increase the patient’s risk of a secondary cancer, if you survive the treatment.

Of course, the most commonly misdiagnosed “cancers” occur in organs where cancer is the most common. For women, the target organ is the breast. Finding the non-cancer condition of “ductal carcinoma in situ” in a pathology biopsy has led to millions of women around the world being treated and disfigured for a “cancer” that probably would have never caused harm. Tragically, more and more women diagnosed with “breast cancer” are even opting for bilateral mastectomy, despite lack of benefit.

The analogy in men is the prostate gland. A non-cancer pathologic biopsy finding called “high-grade intraepithelial neoplasia” (HGIN) is commonly over-treated as if it were cancer — distressing, disabling, disfiguring, dismasting, and disarming millions of men.

The NCI itself now admits we should no longer consider these breast and prostate findings cancerous. More recent studies show we shouldn’t call most thyroid tumors
cancer either.

Furthermore, 91 percent of skin changes called “cancer” aren’t malignant. And dermatologists’ advice to avoid the sun contributes to the growing epidemic of vitamin D deficiency, which in turn increases the risks of all cancer, including malignant skin cancer. And they were wrong about the riskiest malignant skin cancers as well.

When it comes to colon cancer, early removal of polyps does save lives. But the mainstream’s recommendations for screenings are misguided. They say everyone should begin routine colonoscopy every 10 years starting at 50. And if you have a family history, you should start even sooner. But this advice makes no sense, especially when you consider the far safer, less expensive alternatives.

I would like to draw your attention to all the problems associated with screenings for colon cancer, the number three cancer in both men and women, with our new Safe Colon Cancer Screenings Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to urge the U.S. Congress and the FDA to improve oversight, regulation and patient safety for endoscopes, as well as to increase public awareness of the safe, effective alternatives to colonoscopies.  You can read more about it and sign the petition by clicking here.

This misguided war on cancer must stop. If not, we are all part of the problem, watching the naked Emperor march down our streets


“More Women With Breast Cancer Opt for Bilateral Mastectomy Despite Lack of Survival Benefit,” JAMA 2016;315(20):2154-2156