Under the Radar: Cancer and the Cold War

The ghost of Irma Natanson is felt throughout Under the Radar, Ellen Leopold?s unsettling investigation into the effects of Cold War ideology on cancer care. Natanson was a 34-year-old housewife and mother in Kansas when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1955; after a radical mastectomy, she became perhaps the first patient ever to undergo cobalt radiation therapy. The radiation left her severely burned and disabled for the remainder of her life, and she successfully sued her doctor for failing to warn her of the treatment?s risks. Leopold argues that patients like Natanson were unwitting guinea pigs in government-supported experiments to establish the limits of human tolerance for radiation, a pressing concern as nuclear weapons were being developed. The author delves deeply into radiation?s dual position as both cause of and cure for cancer, examining everything from radioactive fallout to the alliance between government and industry to encourage the development of medical technologies with a “close affinity to weapons programs.” She even sees the Cold War connection reflected in the militaristic language still used to describe “battles” with cancer (and, on the flip side, the common ?50s formulation referring to the “cancer of communism,” which didn?t just spread but “metastasized”). “What alternative…approaches have fallen by the wayside, lacking the kind of heavy-duty institutional backing granted to radiotherapies?” Leopold asks, forcing some uncomfortable questions about all of the roads not taken in cancer prevention and treatment.