Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 29, 2014

Cancer, Politics and Capitalism

Filed under: Counterpunch,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 12:00 pm

Dissenting Opinions

Cancer, Politics and Capitalism


After working for a series of unsavory financial institutions for 15 years, I accepted a position as a database administrator at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in 1983 with an eager sense of anticipation. Finally I would be doing something professionally that was more in sync with my political values. Instead of using my skills to keep track of pension trust portfolios, I would be creating a data infrastructure for patient care.

For more than a year I worked on developing a data model based on “normalized” relationships that sought to eliminate redundancies and provide a reliable foundation for applications development. A few months after I presented the model to management, I learned that all my work was in vain. The hospital had decided to buy a package from SMS, inc. that was considered nonpareil when it came to debt collection. As happened too often, a loved one would check into the hospital for a couple of months of very expensive and painful treatments that came to an end with the patient’s death. Since the survivors often had a tendency to ignore the astronomical bills that went along with such an exercise in futility, the hospital decided to purchase a system that was very good at dunning if nothing else. That decision left me feeling deflated. Once again money ruled.

When I received an invitation to review “Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering”, a documentary described as “the remarkable true story of a young science-writer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who risked everything by blowing the whistle on a massive cover-up involving a promising cancer therapy”, I knew that this was one I could not miss. (The film opens at Cinema Village in NYC on August 29, and at Laemmle Music Hall in LA on September 5. A national release will follow.)

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  1. Great article! This is the kind of material I come to this blog to read.

    One note:

    “He mentioned Avastin, a drug that generated $2.11 in sales in 2011.”

    Should be 2.11 billion I’m guessing? We all make mistakes but does Counterpunch have an editor? I find errors in nearly every article on the site and even in print. Hate to think I’m donating to them for nothing.

    Comment by Steve D — August 29, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

  2. And:

    “Johnson sets out on a trek that takes him to conferences and labs all around the USA when he is not accompanying his wife on her frequent for chemotherapy.”

    Should be “on her frequent appointments for chemotherapy” or something?

    Comment by Steve D — August 29, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

  3. Here is a useful critique of the film from a scientific perspective

    David Gorski, “Eric Merola and Ralph Moss try to exhume the rotting corpse of Laetrile in a new movie”, Sciencebased Medicine, February 24, 2014.

    Not too surprisingly Mercola was the art director the “anti-establishment” Zeigeist nonsense http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Eric_Merola

    Comment by michaeljamesbarker — August 29, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

  4. I saw Gorski’s article. However, the film is not so much about laetrile as it is about the MSKCC brass. In my conversation with Moss, he did not come across as a laetrile cultist. Also, the entire terrain of cancer care is fraught with uncertainty. That is why Johnson’s book is so valuable. It resituates the discussion away from medicine to deeper analyses of the life process.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 29, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

  5. Apparently the director of this movie previously made one on “alternative medicine” man Stanislaw Burzynski, which was torn apart by critics:

    “Eric Merola, a former art director of commercials, is either unusually credulous, or doesn’t understand the difference between a documentary and an advertisement, or has an undisclosed relationship with the subject of his allegedly nonfiction first film. Consciously or not, Merola is shilling madly for Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, a Polish-born physician who has run afoul of federal authorities and shown up on several quackometers for his claim to have cured scores of patients of a lethal brain cancer with a treatment derived from human urine.” – http://www.villagevoice.com/2010-06-01/film/quack-quack-goes-burzynski/

    Comment by Steve D — August 29, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

  6. I know that about Merola and Burzynski but this film–to repeat–is not a sales pitch for laetrile. It is actually rather restrained.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 29, 2014 @ 6:48 pm

  7. I figured you knew since you usually put in research but other readers may not. I didn’t know until doing some searches inspired by your excellent piece.

    Comment by steve d — August 29, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

  8. My husband came home from Vietnam in January, 1972 … our first son was born October 6 of that year. He lived for 2 days and then died of cancer of the right adrenal gland. In 2009 my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer and started radiation within weeks of the diagnosis; so far he has remained cancer-free. I have a friend who was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma early this year; he had surgery and has had to be scanned every 3 months since the surgery. The last scan showed that the cancer had metastasized so they put him on a chemo drug that he took daily as a tablet (I think it’s called ‘Votrient’); he is no longer on this drug because many of the metastasized tumors actually grew, and it was making him painfully sick. Now he is on ‘conventional’ chemo having had his first IV treatment last week, and not only does he feel better he has begun to regain the weight he lost while on the Votrient. Sadly, the chemo drugs will not remove the cancer but just allow him to live with it.

    I have been around family members and friends who have been diagnosed with cancer for most of my life and yet at my age (61) I have been cancer-free and have never really been concerned about the possibility that I could get it. Now I am concerned enough to listen to my body when it is trying to tell me something. In the past even if I had paid attention to it there would have been nothing I could have done as my husband and I both worked in jobs that didn’t offer any kind of health insurance so we went more than 20 years with none; that changed when Mike got too sick to ignore his symptoms, so we went to the local VA Hospital and since he is 100+% disabled he gets his care for nothing and I pay a nominal fee to see my own doctor. What I truly do not understand is why so many of my fellow peons are being forced into ‘obamacare’ when he had a couple of excellent examples of universal healthcare to model his from. As you stated, far too often in this country if the cancer treatment doesn’t kill you, the bills for it will — for a supposedly ‘humane’ country it sure seems to me that we have a long way to go before we finally begin to care for humanity!

    Comment by wolfess — August 30, 2014 @ 5:35 pm

  9. “What I truly do not understand is why so many of my fellow peons are being forced into ‘obamacare’ when he had a couple of excellent examples of universal healthcare to model his from.”


    Universal healthcare came from popular pressure by mass labor organizations. Capitalist governments gave in to calm people down and avoid revolution.

    Now that the “alternative model” if the USSR with free healthcare for all is gone and the bureaucratic unions are falling apart that universal healthcare is being torn apart in places like the UK.

    Obamacare wasn’t forced by popular pressure. It was a top down austerity move meant to press the healthcare burden into the profitable private insurance sector. Previously anyone could walk into an emergency room and get care even if they couldn’t afford it. Now everyone is forced to purchase insurance so the debt can be collected.

    Comment by steve d — August 31, 2014 @ 7:30 am

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