Like most TV-watching, internet-surfing, mall-patronizing Americans, my affection for an advertising slogan has little to do with its reading on the truth-o-meter. Among my favorite product pick-up lines: “It’s the real thing.” “Guinness is good for you.” And “Don’t mess with Texas.” (Subtext: or we’ll send you another president.) But despite its melodious, upbeat tag, I can’t get behind the “Partners Shopping Card” campaign: “The cure for cancer just might be in the bag.”
Friday marks the kickoff of the seventh-annual 10-day consumer event, during which more than 400 local and national shops and restaurants offer 20-percent discounts to folks who donate $50 to the Cancer Center Council — a fundraising organization that supports San Antonio’s Cancer Therapy & Research Center. Proceeds raised from the sale of the cards will go to CTRC’s new Multidisciplinary Breast Cancer Center.
The PR materials for the Shopping Card call it a “win-win” situation. “The retailer wins because the program drives traffic to their store and they get to partner with a charity that supports the community that supports them,” Chairman Margie O’Krent is quoted as saying in the official press release. “The consumer wins by realizing a real shopping value for their donation.”
Now, I’m not going to tell you that CTRC is a bad place to spend your do-good money. In September, the FDA approved Vectibix, a new colon-cancer drug tested at the center that is more effective than the previous leading colon-cancer drug and will cost patients an estimated 20 percent less — one of 14 cancer-treatment drugs approved by the FDA in the past 15 years that underwent pre-clinical or clinical evaluation at the CTRC. CTRC also says it treats patients regardless of ability to pay.
But I do want you to think twice before you set out to save the world armed with plastic cards. CTRC’s prevention research — like most major cancer-research facilities — falls primarily into early detection. But it’s even more important to support programs that study primary prevention — environmental causes of cancer, from pesticides to diet to noctural light exposure — that might account for, i.e., the huge discrepancy between first and third-world breast-cancer rates. I want us to cure breast cancer, but, I also want us to figure out how to prevent the estimated 90-95 percent of breast cancer that is not hereditary.
Because despite the best efforts of all of us well-meaning shoppers (the Partners Card has raised more than $800,000 since its inception), it’s an exaggeration to say we are gaining in the fight against cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, the cancer-death rate has declined slightly each year since the early 1990s, but the overall incidence of cancer has remained stable. The cancers that have increased are likely to have an environmental component: for men, that includes myeloma, leukemia, and kidney, liver, and esophagal cancer. That doesn’t sound like progress to me; that sounds like an industry with a steady supply of patients.
In the May 2006 Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, Ralph Moss took issue with the American Cancer Society’s claim that cancer deaths are on the decline. The death rate for women actually rose slightly last year, said Moss; the declining death rate for men was responsible for the overall improvement. He also noted that the most significant improvement occurred in stomach and lung cancers. For the first group, some researchers have argued that environmental factors, including improved dietary habits, are responsible; in the latter, a reduction in the smoking population — from 42 percent of all adults in 1965 to 22 percent in 2003 — has made a significant difference.
Of course, reducing lung cancer by encouraging more people to quit smoking or to never pick it up in the first place doesn’t require you to buy anything — but I still like to think of it as a win-win situation.
In that spirit, here’s something else you can not buy to support the fight against cancer: PVC. Although polyvinyl-chloride plastics are approved for use in plastic toys, shower curtains, and numerous other everyday items, studies have shown that the manufacture, use, and disposal of PVC release dioxins that are related to cancer and endocrine disruption. (Wikipedia has an extensive posting on PVC at En.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyvinyl_chloride.) Two weeks ago, the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice launched a campaign to pressure Target to stop stocking products made with PVC. You can learn more about this troublesome plastic (and why you shouldn’t be huffing that new-car or shower-curtain smell) at Chej.org and Pvcfree.org.
And you can keep your credit card in your wallet.