In the 1970s, based on evidence that I had uncovered during my work as an independent investigative journalist, I concluded that there was such a thing as fake news. The term “fake news” had not yet been invented. But the concept was very much in place and in practice, including at the highest levels of the nation’s news media. The fakery and obfuscation of the truth were most obvious not about politics – but about medicine and health care.
You might say that – in current events – there is always a story behind the commonly accepted one. That is, there exists a narrative that is closer to the truth and is factually more accurate than the dominant party line that is fed to the public through the mainstream news media. That may seem fairly obvious now, but it was not so readily apparent in earlier times before the Internet made it possible to instantly fact check questionable news offered up by the Establishment.
During the first week of November1977 – over 40 years ago as I write this now – I became involved in a story that significantly and forever raised my level of awareness about – and confirmed for me the existence of – what is now called fake news.
On November 3, 1977, a date forever burned into my memory because of what I would encounter and learn in the ensuing weeks, I traveled to Washington, D.C. My purpose was to do intensive research and conduct a series of interviews for the third article in a series that I was writing about the politics and economics of cancer. The series was titled “Cancer: A Metaphor for Modern Times.” My reporting took a close and unconventional look at the conduct of and the lack of progress in the nation’s so-called War on Cancer.
My first article in the series, subtitled “Probing the Medical-Pharmaceutical Complex,” was an overview of the cancer problem. At the time, cancer was the second leading cause of death in the United States, close behind coronary heart disease. More than half a million Americans a year were dying of cancer and that number, in spite of medical advances, was increasing.
My second article, “The Failure of Orthodox Medicine,” examined the shocking limitations in the much-hyped but largely unsuccessful conventional treatments for cancer – surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy drugs. In the third and fourth articles that I was planning, I intended to undertake a probing examination of the Deep State federal bureaucracies and the non-government, tax-exempt “charitable” organizations that were in charge of the cancer war, starting with the U.S. government’s National Cancer Institute.
The NCI was founded in 1937, one of several small disease-focused institutes that comprised the National Institutes of Health (NIH), located in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. In December 1971, the NCI suddenly went from relative obscurity to the forefront of media and public attention after the Congress passed bipartisan legislation that declared a war on cancer, promoted by the burgeoning U.S. Medical Establishment and with the help of high profile celebrities like the popular newspaper advice columnist Ann Landers. The legislation pumped billions of dollars into the new “War on Cancer.” Proponents compared it to the effort during the 1960s that resulted in Americans landing on the moon less than a decade after President John F. Kennedy promised the nation that we would travel there. The unprecedented, focused medical effort announced in the East Room of the White House in 1971 promised a cure for cancer in time for the Bicentennial on July 4, 1976. President Richard Nixon was an enthusiastic endorser of the National Cancer Act which started the cancer war. Nixon signed the act into law in that ceremony in the White House East Room on 12/23/71, touting it as a “Christmas present to the nation.”
By the mid-1970s, especially after the 1976 Bicentennial came and went with no cure for cancer in sight, questions about the War on Cancer – its costs and effectiveness – were starting to be asked, in the Congress and in the media. I was one of those who was asking the questions.
When I began my reporting, I discovered that the people in charge of the cancer war – many of them M.D.s – acted more like politicians, self-serving bureaucrats, and spin doctors rather than medical doctors or healers.
My first contact in the nation’s capital during that first week of November 1977 was Dean Burk, Ph.D. Dr. Burk was a renowned biochemist with an international reputation. He had been one of the founders of the NCI in 1937 and he had risen to the position of director of of its Cytochemistry (cell chemistry) Section. He retired in 1974 at age 70 but remained active – surprisingly not in conventional medicine, but in innovative areas of health care that questioned mainstream medicine and endorsed various natural treatments for cancer. He was also a critic of the mass fluoridation of public water supplies, claiming that the practice of dumping toxic chemicals into a community’s drinking water supposedly to prevent tooth decay increased the incidence of cancer by 18%. Dr. Burk impressed me as a very smart man and a deeply compassionate humanitarian who had dedicated his life to doing medical and scientific research that would help people.
After our first meeting, Dr. Burk and I became instant friends and we remained close until he passed away eleven years later in 1988.
In the fall of 1977, I had already done some reporting starting three years earlier on a fledgling program at the NCI that was tentatively exploring the potential role of diet in the cause and treatment of cancer. The program was unpopular within the huge NCI and NIH bureaucracies, which were dedicated to finding and testing toxic therapies for cancer and showed little interest in cancer prevention or non-toxic, more natural, and less harmful treatments. The larger context was that the entire American Medical Establishment had by that time long maintained a party line that diet and nutrition had absolutely nothing to do with health, including cancer. To claim otherwise immediately got one labeled as a quack or even a criminal.
At Dr. Burk’s home in NW Washington, D.C. soon after we met, we talked in his basement office. After he learned about my interest in diet and cancer, he showed me several dusty volumes of mainstream medical and scientific publications from 40, 50, and 60 years earlier that were focused on diet, nutrition, and cancer! Dr. Burk explained that this area of research had shown great promise in the first decades of the 20th century and that for several decades afterwards it was a vigorous area of mainstream scientific inquiry.
Over four decades earlier, there were studies published in leading medical journals, conference proceedings, and books, for example by Dr. Michael Tannenbaum of Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, that showed that a diet low in calories (caloric restriction) and high in certain nutrients showed promise as a cancer preventive diet. With a small number of innovative researchers looking at the same areas of diet and cancer once again in the 1970s, Dr. Burk told me, “Peter, there is nothing new under the sun.” Needless to say, I was surprised if not shocked to learn about what Dr. Burk was saying and showing me.
So what happened to this early promising work on diet and cancer from the first decades of the 20th century? The simple answer is that it went out of fashion during World War II when physicians and researchers observed that chemicals similar to certain biological weapons of war, particularly nitrogen mustard, might have a role in cancer treatment. Virtually overnight, the field of cancer chemotherapy – cytotoxic or cell-killing chemical therapy – was born. Chemotherapy would remain the most fashionable and widely used form of conventional cancer treatment well into the next century, the 21st Century, crowding out other, less harmful, and more promising approaches. After World War II and for succeeding decades, mainstream scientific interest in diet and cancer went to less than zero.
In November 1977 I also interviewed Gio Batta Gori, Ph.D., the director of the NCI’s Diet, Nutrition and Cancer Program.
It was pressure from some members of Congress, particularly Sens. George McGovern (D-SD) and Robert Dole (R-KS), who co-chaired a Senate Subcommittee on Nutrition that had held hearings on the subject of nutrition and cancer starting in 1974, who championed the effort to fund the NCI’s small diet and cancer program. In fact, it was legislation that originated in the McGovern-Dole subcommittee, subsequently passed by the Congress, that mandated the NCI to start a new diet and cancer research program in the first place.
I knew Sen. McGovern from 1972 when I worked on his campaign for president. In 1977, I interviewed both him and Sen. Dole, as well as Dr. Gori and several other NCI researchers, for my article.
It didn’t hurt chemotherapy’s popularity that it was extremely profitable to the nation’s pharmaceutical companies, which made billions of dollars from the sale of the drugs. Their lobbyists in turn influenced the Congress and the direction of national cancer research policy. Physicians themselves, especially oncologists, also often derived significant financial benefits from prescribing chemotherapy.
The article that was generated from my work in Washington, D.C. and Bethesda, Maryland in November 1977 was subsequently published as “The National Cancer Institute and the Fifty-Year Cover Up.” The fact is that, with the rise of chemotherapy and its dominance for decades, by 1977 about fifty years or more had been lost in the pursuit of a very promising option: the role of diet and nutrition in cancer prevention and treatment. Hence the title, “The Fifty-Year Cover Up.”
My article was well-received, widely quoted and cited, and frequently photocopied and republished, including in the official transcript of a 1978 United States Senate Subcommittee hearing on the NCI co-chaired by Senators McGovern and Dole (scan from original hearing transcript published by the U.S. Government Printing Office below).
As I look back now, it is my experiences as a gumshoe journalist and what I learned during this period of time four decades ago that enlightened me to the existence of what was and is, in effect, fake news – the Establishment’s insistence that diet had little or nothing to do with cancer and health. For the most part, the nation’s mainstream news media all during those years enthusiastically reflected that spin.
Five years later, in 1982, the highest levels of the U.S. medical Establishment undertook a profound shift virtually overnight with the publication of a report by the National Academy of Sciences, Diet, Nutrition and Cancer. This change was due to the fact that the powers-that-be recognized the growing interest in diet and cancer on the part of both innovative researchers and the American people and they wanted to appear to get out in front of it. This sudden policy shift represented the beginning of a sea change that would continue, with fits and starts, right up to the present day and would see diet and nutrition established as important factors in health in general and in cancer in particular.
With the government behind the new effort, the bureaucratic Deep State mindset, reflecting the needs of Big Pharma, immediately came into play. New generations of doctors and researchers were co-opted and directed into fashionable and trendy new areas like chemoprevention – the isolation of anticancer factors from nutrients and other naturally-occurring substances that could be produced as drugs and prescribed and sold at high prices to cancer patients.
The question remains: How many millions of lives could have been saved if the medical Establishment had not effectively ignored or suppressed important and credible research and information on diet and cancer and nutrition and health – over the course of decades, starting in the 1940s or even earlier?
A possible answer to this question recently came to light – and right out of the center of scientific and medical officialdom. On October 3, 2017, the Centers for Disease Control – CDC – of the U.S. government released detailed scientific information that asserted, according to the title of a CDC press release, “Cancers Associated with Overweight and Obesity Make up 40 percent of Cancers Diagnosed in the United States.”
About 630,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with a cancer associated with overweight and obesity in 2014. . . In 2013-2014, about 2 out of 3 adults in the U.S. were overweight (defined as having a body mass index of 25-29.9 kg/m2) or had obesity (having a body mass index of 30 kg/m2 and higher).
So, in the almost 100 years since the work of early diet and cancer pioneer Dr. Tannenbaum and other scientists who reported that cancer incidence is associated with being overweight, the word about diet and cancer is finally getting out – slowly. Meanwhile, the American way of of eating that has grown up around excessive caloric consumption since the end of World War II – the so-called fast-food culture – has resulted in two out of three American adults now being overweight or obese.
The official cancer survival statistics released by the federal government are massaged and manipulated but it is a credible assumption that around 50% of people who are diagnosed with cancer today will eventually die from the disease or from the deleterious impacts of the toxic treatments. (The NIH claims the “relative survival rate” for all cancers is 68% but that figure should be taken with a large grain of salt since there is also a much lower observed survival rate.) That translates to around 300,000 Americans a year who are dying from obesity-related cancers.
Over the past 40 years, the cumulative death toll might be 10 million or more Americans – who died prematurely because the information on cancer prevention that was first uncovered almost a century ago was never applied in modern medicine and was never made available to physicians, public health officials, or the public.
This is a public health death toll that is unprecedented in modern times, and it points to yet another “failure of orthodox medicine.”
My experience with deconstructing the medical spin and obfuscation around diet and cancer 40 years ago – getting closer to the truth despite a sea of fake news – was excellent training and preparation for reporting on other areas of modern life, particularly politics which, as we see today, is corrupted and dominated by lies and an unending stream of fake news.
Peter Barry Chowka has been a journalist and a writer for all of his life. In 1992, Peter was appointed by the National Institutes of Health to serve on two of the first program advisory panels of the new Office of Alternative Medicine. Peter has also written for the peer review Medline-indexed scientific literature, most recently an article about Nicholas Gonzalez, M.D. (1947-2015). To stay in touch with Peter’s latest reporting and weekly video commentaries on the Internet, follow him on Twitter @pchowka.