The Secret History of the War on Cancer

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The "War on Cancer" started out as a mission to find, treat, and cure the disease-but it avoided fighting its basic causes: tobacco, alcohol, the workplace, and environmental hazards. After nearly four decades and $40 billion, we know this strategy is no accident, as award-winning epidemiologist Devra Davis shows in this superbly researched expose. Leaders of Big Tobacco, the construction industry, and chemical companies have underwritten research to treat cancer but have undermined and downplayed efforts to prevent the disease altogether. They have sabotaged major public health efforts to prevent cancer for private gain-at the expense of millions of lives. In her new afterword for the paperback edition, Davis explains that the tobacco industry wrote the playbook for manipulating science and manufacturing doubt-a strategy employed today by the boosters of asbestos and cell phones.
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Editorial Reviews

David Oshinsky
While much of this may sound familiar to a moderately informed reader, Davis puts it together in a way that illuminates the underbelly of medical research…the best watchdogs are often the most obsessive, using shock and alarm as a prelude to discussion. And for many readers of The Secret History of the War on Cancer, I suspect, Devra Davis is a natural for this role.
—The Washington Post
Kirkus Reviews
Cancer remains such a prolific killer, says the author, because the medical community focuses on treatment rather than prevention of the root causes. Davis (When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, 2002, etc.), an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at University of Pittsburgh's Cancer Institute, offers a detailed history of workplace and environmental carcinogens that predates Nixon's "war" on cancer in the '70s. She reminds us of Sir Percival Pott's observations of scrotal cancers in English chimney sweeps, the radiation-induced cancers that followed the discovery of X-rays, the Curies' work with radium and, less well-known, the research of Nazi scientists who linked tobacco to cancer and led officials to discourage Germans from smoking during World War II. The German scientists were pioneers in the new field of epidemiology, which even today is denigrated by some since it involves methods like surveys (unreliable) and statistics (suspect). Much of the text makes for grim but fascinating reading as Davis reviews the tobacco story and describes conditions in steel mills, copper smelters, chemical factories and plastics plants, where workers are exposed to insidious and lethal solvents and agents such as asbestos, benzene, formaldehyde and dioxin. She also immortalizes the many poor people in small towns next to waste dumps or downstream from hugely polluted rivers who died from cancer or whose children suffered birth defects. In almost every case, the offending corporation lied, denied, delayed or bought-off complaints, recruiting the best legal talent and, sad to say, even highly respected scientists.Rather than engage in what has been a fruitless battle of litigation, vengeance and counterproductive legislation, Davis proposes a kind of truth-and-reconciliation approach to get industry and public-health experts mutually involved. But she notes that, unfortunately, it's simply not happening fast enough, and she goes on to raise her own concerns about cell phones, Ritalin and aspartame. One can hope, however, that Davis's book will assure that proper attention is paid.
From the Publisher

Washington Post
“Davis put it together in a way that illuminates the underbelly of medical research."

O magazine
"In her devastating, 20-years-in-the-making expose...Devra Davis... shows how cancer researchers, bankrolled by petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies, among others, collude in 'the science of doubt promotion.'...Davis diagnoses two of the most lethal diseases of modern society: secrecy and self-interest. This book is a dramatic plea for a cure."

“Davis’s new book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, is a wake-up call for all those who have accepted the poisons of our age of plenty without a blink.”

Lancet Oncology
“A feisty and highly accessible writer, Davis lays her cards on the table...a rattling good read and raises vital issues that remain relevant today.”

Booklist starred review
&ldquoSeveral big ACS [American Cancer Society] contributors, are heavily invested in keeping the public from becoming fully informed of the risks of myriad chemicals to which we and our children are exposed.... Money, it seems, trumps all. Treatment and cures are hefty profit generators, and it’s expensive to change or eliminate the use of potentially toxic chemicals.... Kudos to Davis for stepping up to the plate.”

The Times (Higher Education Supplement)
The Secret History of the War on Cancer reflects the complex interaction of science, politics and society in the 20th century. I am left wondering how it will change in the 21st.”

Toronto Globe & Mail
“Easily the most important science book of the year.... Each and every chapter in this book offers an uncomfortable revelation.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Davis is excellent at following the money and fearless about naming names.... With this work, Devra Davis has permanently reframed the ‘war.’ It should be required reading for those with cancer histories in their families. In other words, just about all of us.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer / Best 20 Books of 2007
“This searing book from a University of Pittsburgh epidemiologist lays out 35 years of medical greed and cowardice that left millions of Americans vulnerable to environmental and occupational cancer deaths. Countless political books attempt to influence the electorate, but this one stands out from the pack, demonstrating why money changes everything.”

New York Law Journal
“Compelling and well-written text moves from past to present to assess scores of contemporary workplace and lifestyle hazards, from cell phones to household cleansers to diet soft drinks, and makes clear that the law has been useless in protecting our health.”

New York Review of Books
“Joining this increasingly fractious debate with devastating force, Devra Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, claims that the war “has been fighting many of the wrong battles with the wrong weapons and the wrong leaders.” She calculates that these “fundamental misdirections” have thrown away well over a million American lives. Her aim in The Secret History of the War on Cancer is to deliver nothing less than a “reckoning” of this terrible toll.”

Library Journal
“Davis writes with passion, driven by the conviction that premature deaths among her family members resulted from exposure to industrial toxins...a powerful call to action.”

Kirkus Reviews
“A detailed history of workplace and environmental carcinogens that predates Nixon's "war" on cancer in the '70s.... Fascinating reading as Davis reviews the

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781433253140
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/1/2009
  • Format: MP3 on CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Pages: 2
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Devra Davis

Devra Davis, PhD, MPH, directs Pittsburgh’s Center for Environmental Oncology and is Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. Contributor to the Nobel Peace Prize of 2007, she was founding director of the Board on Environmental Studies at the National Academy of Science and presidential appointee to the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. She is the acclaimed author of When Smoke Ran Like Water, Finalist for the National Book Award. She lives in Washington, D.C., and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Good To Know

Davis was fired from her first job as a summer camp counselor in New England. Recalls Davis, "I had taught the campers 'marching' songs, some of which I had learned from my drill sergeant father, like 'Dirty Lil' and 'Sound Off' and others which were anti-war ditties, such as 'I Ain't a Marching Anymore,' and 'The Cat Came Back.' I got canned because the camp director made me out to be someone who would not always fall in line. Who knew?"

Davis on her family ties: "I am very proud of my big-talking, big-walking siblings and my own grand, noisy Langer, Davis, Morgenstern, Tuckfelt, Goldenberg family, where, as in Garrison Keillor's famous town, all the children are above average, all the women are strong and all the men are good looking. My daughter Lea just graduated from Oberlin College with a double major in the two things you are not supposed to argue about in polite company -- Politics and Religion -- and is teaching in a very modern Orthodox Jewish pre-school in Northern California that includes several gay parents. My son, Aaron, is a former United States Marine and is en route to becoming a real chef, so he is both strong and secure. My husband, Richard Morgenstern, regularly traipses around Asia getting governments to reduce their use of filthy, sickening fuels. The entire lot of us likes to work just a bit outside the box."

According to Davis, "The town I grew up in was famous in the way that Jack the Ripper and the Son of Sam were famous, so of course nobody ever talked about it. Only when I went away to college did I ever hear that a town called Donora had been badly polluted. I was really shocked and believed that there just had to be another Donora somewhere. There was not."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Devra Lee Davis
    2. Hometown:
      Washington, D.C. and Jackson, Wyoming
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 7, 1946
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.S., M.A., University of Pittsburgh, 1967; Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1972; M.P.H., Johns Hopkins University, 1982

Table of Contents


1 The Secret History 3

2 Natural and Other Experiments 17

3 A Broad Enough Principle 45

4 Phantom Collaborators 73

5 Fear Sells 107

6 Making Goods out of Bads 141

7 Saving Cigarettes 169

8 The Good War 199

9 Cancer Doctoring 223

10 Deconstructing Cancer Statistics

11 Doctoring Evidence 267

12 The Harshest of Schoolmasters

13 No Safe Place 329

14 Chasing Tales 363

15 Presumed Innocent 391

Epilogue: Mother's Last 437

Afterword: Bad Dreams 455

Notes 479

Index 513

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 4 of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2007

    Finally some honesty about what's causing the epidemic of cancer!

    This book exposes the corporate greed and government protection of corporate greed that has shielded us from knowing the truth about what is causing the current epidemic of cancer. I bet someone in your family has some form of it. Few families are spared. I have it. It was my oncologist at the City of Hope who said that cancer has become an epidemic. The author has written a fascinating, fast moving, honest book that will help everyone understand how urgently we need to go 'organic' and 'green' NOW!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2007


    Brilliantly written. Devra Davis has written a book that reads like a novel but is jam-packed with interesting tidbits about the 'war on cancer.' This is not a self-help book -- it is a fascinating report of decades of science, politics, industry and medicine written in a very layman-friendly way. Deception. Intrigue. It is all here. Although lengthy, it is a quick and compelling read. Absolutely outstanding and highly recommended.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2010

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    Posted June 11, 2011

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