October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. There is an abundance of requests for donations and pink ribbons everywhere you turn. One of the things I like about this month is people across the country come together (as a big community) to try to help those who are suffering from breast cancer. However, there are good reasons why I never donate to charities that purport to be searching for a cure for cancer (any kind). Before I go into these reasons, I think it is important to point out (as others who have written on this topic have) that I feel people that donate to this cause are good and kind people who have the best of intentions. The world needs more people like you (people with genuine intentions of helping other people). But when I look at the facts, I don’t find that cancer charities are doing what they claim to be doing. Keep in mind as you read this article that breast cancer represents the largest segment of cancer therapy, with 26% of the market share, resulting in over 10 billion dollars of revenue (in 2007). It is clear there is money to be made (by many different people) from cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Here are five of my reasons I do not give to cancer charities:
1. Inefficient Donation Use. Several cancer charities are notorious for using the donated money very inefficiently. For example, according to a year-long study by the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Cancer Fund of America and the American Breast Cancer Foundation are on the list of the top five worst charities in the US regarding use of donated money. The Cancer Fund of America spends 82% of its donations for fundraising—that is, 82% of the money you donate goes in the pockets of for-profit fundraisers. The American Breast Cancer Foundation spends only 30% of the money it raises on programs that support its mission, the other 70% is spent on fundraising and administrative expenses. Cancer is clearly a lucrative business. I would wish for a larger proportion than 30 cents on every dollar I give to aid cancer patients in some way. Fortunately, not all charities spend their money similarly. For what it’s worth, an efficient charitable organization should spend about 25% (or less) of its donations on fundraising and administrative expenses (as suggested by the American Institute of Philanthropy).
2. Funding Pharmaceutical Research. Cancer charities donate money to pharmaceutical companies that develop cancer treatments. Why on earth would this be a bad thing, you might ask. Three reasons, the first: we are supporting for-profit companies with our donations, who then sell their product (a cancer treatment) to us at great profit. This is like donating to an automotive service company and then still paying full price for car repairs when something goes wrong. Further, this means that your donations support for-profit companies and, in large part, do not become direct cash aid to cancer patients. These facts have led some people to consider cancer charities as nothing more than a front to fund pharmaceutical companies (perhaps extreme, but with a grain of truth). The second reason: pharmaceutical companies use those funds to conduct research on their products, research that they own, and can selectively publish. Publication bias in pharmaceutical company research is well known—they do not always publish data that contradict their desired outcome. The second reason, much related to the first: the products created by pharmaceutical companies aren’t cures (and never will be), they are treatments once someone has contracted cancer, treatments that often suppress the functioning of the immune system and actually contribute to further illness, including cancer. This must be stressed—donations to pharmaceutical companies do not result in research that prevents the formation of cancer. Major cancer charities do not give to doctors practicing holistic and less damaging methods of cancer treatment, they give only to pharmaceutical companies practicing methods that can be correctly called cut, burn, and poison (i.e., surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy). If pharmaceutical companies put their research into preventative “medicine”, I might be more inclined to donate.
3. Confusing Early Diagnosis with Prevention. If you visit almost any cancer charity’s website, you will find volumes of information on the importance of early diagnosis for treating cancer. I do not dispute that finding cancer early can help treat it. But I come from a different health paradigm, one where outright prevention of the illness is considered better than treating the illness at any stage. Let me use the analogy of a house. Your house is there to protect you from the elements (well, at least historically, it is now also used to showcase your belongings). The house, like our immune system, has different elements that help it to work, including the roof, the siding, the insulation, the paint or stains applied to the wood, the quality of the window fittings, etc. Early diagnostics amounts to searching around the inside of your home and looking for, let’s say, a leak when it rains. My strategy is not to wait for a leak to occur (and the months or years of rot and deterioration to wood and insulation that can result from leaks) but to preventatively upkeep the exterior to prevent leaks. Using this house analogy, this would entail painting and staining on a schedule, replacing leaky window fittings, repairing sags in the roof, etc. Applied to real life, I want to seek deep nutrition and healthy lifestyle practices that promote the functioning of my immune system and restrict exposure to carcinogenic substances. This should be the real emphasis of any cancer charity—prevention. But, this emphasis does not benefit pharmaceutical companies and we, as Americans, are reactionary people. We get interested in something only when there is a problem. We tend not to be pro-actionary, preventing issues from ever surfacing through conscientious practices that consider the effects of our actions over the long term.
4. Promoting Products and Tools that Contribute to Cancer. Susan G. Komen for the Cure, whose mission statement is “Ending breast cancer forever”, actually promotes the use of materials that are known to contribute to cancer. Komen for the Cure denies the link between Bisphenyl-A (BPA) and cancer, despite studies that link BPA to breast cancer. Bisphenyl-A is a component of the pink-capped polycarbonate water bottle distributed by its partner DS Waters. Komen for the Cure receives donations from 3M, maker of Scotch Tape, who is a member of the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that argues for the safety of BPA. Clearly, Komen for the Cure has ties to industry that creates carcinogenic materials. More to the point, many breast-cancer-related charities still promote the use of mammograms, even though mammograms expose women to ionizing radiation that can increase their chances of developing breast cancer. The more mammograms a women receives, the higher her odds (each mammogram increases a women’s lifetime odds of contracting breast cancer 1 to 2 percent). But, you say, mammograms help detect cancer. Yes, they do, with an over diagnosis (and over treatment) rate of 30% (as revealed in the 2011 meta-analysis by the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews). Now there is a new three-dimensional mammogram (called 3D tomosynthesis), which exposes women to twice the radiation as a traditional two-dimensional mammogram. Doesn’t it seem strange to attempt to detect breast cancer with a device that produces radiation that can promote breast cancer? I think so, especially considering devices such as ultrasound and infrared (i.e., thermography) do exist that are far less invasive and do not expose the breasts to ionizing radiation.
5. Failure to Promote Lifeways that Prevent Cancer. A lifeway is the sum total of a person’s diet and lifestyle. A person’s lifestyle includes many things, including movement, exposure to the elements, involvement in community, stress-free practices, happiness, and fulfillment with career and hobbies (or, on the negative side, lack of exercise, most time spent indoors, absence of community, stressful living, unhappiness, and no fulfillment). We could go on about the beneficial lifestyle practices that support health and immune system function. These are the factors, along with diet, that prevent cancer from ever occurring within an individual. Believe it or not, you have a great deal of power over your fate. It is well understood that what you eat and what you are exposed to affects your genetic expression, which greatly alters your health outcomes. You are not merely the product of your genes, but rather how your genes respond to your lifeway. Your body is equipped to deal with cancer (there are a variety of mechanisms in place to stop it in its early stages). And what your body cannot do, your diet can do, through providing antioxidants and anti-cancer compounds (the latter especially prevalent in wild plants and heirloom organic produce). Questions that I have: why are there not extensive discussions on cancer charity websites about the role of, for example, vitamin A in your immune system function and best natural sources of vitamin A (hint: in this case, it isn’t plants)? Why is there no discussion about eliminating many items common to American homes, such as wall-to-wall carpets, high VOC paints, plastic containers for liquids of all kinds, and even certain hygiene products, that increase your odds of cancer? Why do they not list common features of diet and lifestyle of traditional cultures that experience extremely limited rates of cancer? I don’t know. I’m not stating it is a conspiracy theory (though your cancer doctors do make profit from the chemotherapy drugs they administer to you). I’m not stating it is incompetence (though few people even realize that treating an illness isn’t the same as preventing an illness). I’m only stating that I don’t know. But it seems that the prevention of cancer should be number one for any cancer charity. However, when I examine their websites, it seems to be mostly about diagnosis of existing cancer and its treatment options. When the main focus of cancer charities changes to lifeways that maximize prevention strategies (which also prevent all kinds of other acute and chronic illnesses), I’ll consider donating.
Please remember with all of this, I’m not trying to anger or ridicule anyone. I’m definitely not trying to be callous to anyone, especially those whose lives have been touched by cancer (in any way). You don’t have to agree with my reasons. It doesn’t make us enemies. We are both interested in cancer, though we may be interested in different stages of cancer. With the lifetime odds of contracting cancer (all forms) in the US at 2 in 5, it is likely all of us have (or will) be affected by cancer in our lives. I’m trying to be respectful of that. But at the same time, I’m trying to bring awareness. A final question for you to consider: how do the funds given to pharmaceutical companies by Susan G. Komen for the Cure (money originating from your donations) to develop treatments once you have succumbed to breast cancer, actually promote their goal of “Ending breast cancer forever”. And before you answer, remember that global breast cancer rates are on the rise.