Tue, Sep 18, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Prevention of cancer beats cures

By AllenChen 陳昭倫

Terry Gou (郭台銘), chief executive officer of Hon Hai Precision Corp, recently donated NT$15 billion (US$450 million) to National Taiwan University for the establishment of a state-of-the-art proton therapy center for cancer treatment.

Likewise, Formosa Plastics Group chairman Wang Yung-ching (王永慶) invested NT$3 billion in the construction of a similar center at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital.

These two tycoons were both motivated because they lost close relatives to cancer, and they now hope that other people suffering from cancer can be treated with proton therapy.

To have two centers for proton therapy in a comparatively small country like Taiwan is a substantial legacy from the two men.

However, it is worth pausing and looking at these large donations again.

From a medical point of view, the causes of cancer are complicated. Apart from hereditary factors, research shows that most cancers are triggered because people are exposed to cancer-causing environmental factors. In medical terminology, these environmental factors are called carcinogens.

Carcinogens are all around us. Many things, from radioactive materials, chemicals in herbicides, insecticides and pesticides to heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and lead that are used in the high-tech industry, and hormone disrupting chemicals that are found in some plastic products, are known to be carcinogens.

The threats to public health brought about by these carcinogens in the environment are too numerous to mention. Such toxins, from the dioxin pollution caused by the Taiwan Alkali Industrial Corp (TAIC), and mercury and cadmium in Taoyuan to hormones in the environment in Hsiangshan Township (香山) in Hsinchu County, can enter the food chain, concentrate in certain organisms, make their way to the top of the food chain, and end up in the bodies of Taiwanese, who give priority to economic development over environmental protection.

It is no exaggeration to say that Taiwanese are living in a sea of carcinogens.

So when we take another look at the source of these almost NT$20 billion in donations for the development of cancer treatment facilities -- the Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park and the Sixth Naphtha Cracker in Mailiao Township (麥寮) in Yunlin County -- we discover that the price that we have already paid in terms of damage to the environment and the danger of living in an environment awash with carcinogens is millions of times higher than the NT$20 billion in donations.

What's even stranger, is that it is the same organizations that are both producing carcinogens and investing in curing cancer.

This strange conflict of interest brings to mind Rachel Carson, the American pioneer of environmental protection.

In her most famous book Silent Spring, published in 1962, she writes about the connection between carcinogens and cancer.

She quotes Wilhelm Hueper of the National Cancer Institute, who was of the opinion that our world is full of carcinogens, and that concentrating our efforts on looking for ways to cure cancer is doomed to fail.

He believed that the carcinogens that remain in the environment will cause healthy people to get sick faster than sick people can be cured.

So in our battle against cancer, why don't we implement measures to prevent the disease?

Hueper said that curing cancer is more visible than preventing it, and successful stories of recovery make people feel happy and optimistic. Also, the honorarium in the field of curing cancer is higher.

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