Under the Radar

Under the Radar: Cancer and the Cold War

Ellen Leopold
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 312
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hj78z
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  • Book Info
    Under the Radar
    Book Description:

    At the end of the Second World War, a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence. Sixty years later, it is considered a chronic disease rather than one that is invariably fatal. Although survival rates have improved, the very word continues to evoke a special terror and guilt, inspiring scientists and politicians to wage war against it.InUnder the Radar, Ellen Leopold shows how nearly every aspect of our understanding and discussion of cancer bears the imprint of its Cold War entanglement. The current biases toward individual rather than corporate responsibility for rising incidence rates, research that promotes treatment rather than prevention, and therapies that can be patented and marketed all reflect a largely hidden history shaped by the Cold War. Even the language we use to describe the disease, such as the guiding metaphor for treatment, "fight fire with fire," can be traced back to the middle of the twentieth century.Writing in a lucid style, Leopold documents the military, governmental, industrial, and medical views of radiation and atomic energy to examine the postwar response to cancer through the prism of the Cold War. She explores the role of radiation in cancer therapies today, using case studies and mammogram screening, in particular, to highlight the surprising parallels. Taking into account a wide array of disciplines, this book challenges our understanding of cancer and how we approach its treatment.Examines the postwar response to cancer through the prism of the Cold WarGoes beyond medical science to look at the influence of Cold War policies on the way we think about cancer todayLinks the experience of postwar cancer patients with the broader evolution of what have become cancer industriesTraces the history of human-made radiation as a state-sponsored environmental toxin

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4565-3
    Subjects: History, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-29)

    Irma Natanson was a young housewife and mother in Wichita, Kansas, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1955. Medicalized overnight, she was, by today’s standards, fast-tracked through consultation and treatment. Her entrée into a complex medical ordeal was precipitate, unrestrained by the kind of critical negotiation between doctor and patient that has become more common over the past few decades. Unfamiliar with both the language of disease and the logic of prevailing treatment regimes, Natanson, through no fault of her own, became a passive player in the decision-making process. Faced with what was considered a medical emergency, she...

  5. Chapter 1 Double Jeopardy: Cancer and “Cure”
    (pp. 30-41)

    The cancer battlefield is littered with desperate remedies. And, at least until quite recently, every one of them was first tested on those who had little or no idea they were serving as guinea pigs. These men and women were doubly unlucky; first, to be diagnosed with cancer, and second, to have their diagnoses coincide with the introduction of a new and unproven therapy. Whether a genuinely new treatment or a recycled version of an existing one, it would remain at best experimental while patients put their bodies on the line to test the new hypothesis. Until evidence could be...

  6. Chapter 2 The Court Considers Informed Consent
    (pp. 42-58)

    Less than a year after the introduction of X-ray machines at the end of the nineteenth century, the first reports of radiation injuries began to appear. Of course, at the time, no one had any idea that the new invention posed a hazard of any kind, so no one anticipated the need to regulate its use. Virtually anyone could set up shop with the newfangled machines and offer any treatment likely to attract a clientele. There was no limit to experimentation, most of it aimed at conditions that were essentially benign. Inevitably, as X-rays were applied to an increasing assortment...

  7. Chapter 3 The Rise of Radioactive Cobalt
    (pp. 59-79)

    To the extent that Americans have given any thought to the history of cancer treatment, it is the doctor/patient relationship that frames their understanding and the operating room that provides the setting. For many, in fact, the history of cancer has been more or less synonymous with the history of surgery or, more accurately, with its avatars, the great surgeons. If the names and details of patients are now forgotten or off-limits to researchers, those of the surgeons who treated them are not.

    Many women with a personal history of breast cancer, for example, now recognize the name of William...

  8. Chapter 4 The Cobalt Back Story: “A Little of the Buchenwald Touch”
    (pp. 80-108)

    Compressed into a few pages of the history of the M. D. Anderson Hospital, the story of cobalt radiotherapy in the 1950s displays all of the hallmarks of orthodox medical history. It celebrates medical pioneers intuiting a new application of an existing form of treatment, in this case radiotherapy with a new source, cobalt-60. With institutional backing that guaranteed a stable experimental environment, the men pursued the research and the clinical testing they deemed necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness of their innovation. Once the kinks were worked out of the system, the therapy could then be made available to cancer...

  9. Chapter 5 Behind the Fallout Controversy: The Public, the Press, and Conflicts of Interest
    (pp. 109-130)

    The secret radiation experiments carried out on terminally ill cancer patients were a clear sign of military interest in the hazards of radiation. The experimenters were not askingwhetherradioactivity was harmful—they already knew it was—they were hoping instead to define the limits of human tolerance. Cold War weapons planners were equally well informed. Insiders all, they had access to a substantial body of theoretical and empirical evidence that left no one in any doubt.

    The harmful effects of radiation were well known to the scientific community long before the advent of radioactive fallout. In work that won...

  10. Chapter 6 Cancer and Fallout: Science by Circumvention
    (pp. 131-146)

    With the voice of the medical profession silent or, like the radiologists, otherwise engaged, it was skeptical scientists, who, by default, came to represent public opposition to official nuclear policy. The dissidents who entered the fray were members of a small and elite group. Although none of them, by the late 1950s, was still working in an official capacity for any federal agency, many, especially the physicists, had had some experience with the wartime weapons development program. Now back in academic research, they kept in touch with former colleagues at the AEC and elsewhere and were familiar with the outlines...

  11. Chapter 7 Paradise Lost: Radiation Enters the Mainstream
    (pp. 147-163)

    Nothing so effectively confirmed the arrival of radiation as a permanent feature of the postwar landscape as the agreement to regulate it. As Shields Warren, former chief of the AEC’s Division of Biology and Medicine, insisted, “We must look at the paradise of no radiation exposure as utterly unachievable in this life.”¹ The wide-ranging activities that generated radioactive hazards were much too valuable politically and economically to ever consider renouncing them. Formal recognition of radiation’s potentially dangerous side effects would be a small price to pay to smooth its path to legitimacy. Recommended exposure limits, carefully set by experts in...

  12. Chapter 8 Subdued by the System: Cancer in the Courts, Compensation, and the Changing Concept of Risk
    (pp. 164-190)

    Radioactive fallout may have been the first environmental hazard to capture the public’s attention after the Second World War, but it was soon joined by a virtual tidal wave of others.¹ The 1960s and 1970s witnessed revelations of massive exposures to chemical carcinogens, primarily at the workplace. The emergence of cancer among industrial workers reflected the injection of thousands of new chemical compounds into postwar industrial processes. Only a fraction of them had ever been tested for carcinogencity.² By 1968, the use of new organic chemicals had grown to 120 billion pounds a year, an increase of more than 160...

  13. Chapter 9 Hidden Assassin: The Individual at Fault
    (pp. 191-206)

    The notion that individuals are responsible for bringing cancer on themselves is, of course, not new. As a disease stretching back to antiquity, cancer has been rationalized by every system of belief, incorporated into every variety of folklore, mythology, and religion. All cultural responses to it have shared the sense that disease is a manifestation of sin, that individuals are personally responsible for the ills that befall them. Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible make an explicit connection between the wrath of God and disease. Cancer, in this context, is an affliction or punishment, as much spiritual...

  14. Chapter 10 Experiments by Other Means: Clinical Trials and the Primacy of Treatment over Prevention
    (pp. 207-234)

    In the spring of 1986, theNew England Journal of Medicinepublished a controversial article assessing the progress that had been made against cancer between 1950 and 1985 (that is, covering most of the Cold War period).¹ Its lead author was John C. Bailar III, a biostatistician with more than twenty years’ research experience at the National Cancer Institute. Having left the NCI in 1980, Bailar was writing from a position at the Harvard School of Public Health.

    To evaluate the impact of the “war against cancer,” Bailar and Elaine Smith chose to focus on a single measurement—the age-adjusted...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 235-274)
  16. Index
    (pp. 275-284)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 285-286)