What is the cancer-industrial complex?

February 4th marked World Cancer Day 2018, a day that “unites the world’s population in the fight against cancer.” Major strides have been made in the understanding of this complex set of diseases, and advances have been made to save lives of patients since the declaration of War on Cancer in 1971. Over time, Cancer has spilled over from its biomedical realm and entered the social, economic, political and even the metaphysical, influencing the evolution of these spaces in context of the human body, as described by the anthropologist S. Lachlann Jain — “cancer is total social fact — a practice whose effects fissure through seemingly distinct areas of life, thus weaving them together.” One would imagine that after such a long war, we would be winning. However, as prominent cancer researchers agreed recently, we are still losing. The answer to the question of why we are losing lies in the cancer-industrial complex.

The term “industrial complex” has been used previously to explain a profiteering relationship between public entities and private corporations. Viewed in that light, the cancer-industrial complex arises from the symbiosis of private corporations, non-profit organizations such as universities & foundations, and public governmental regulatory bodies in the post-genomic era. This network profits off a vulnerable population who does not have the same footing in a market that is rigged against them given their physical and socioeconomic conditions. This extortion takes place under the auspices of scientific research & technological progress. The cancer-industrial complex, which can be considered a niche of the medical-industrial complex, deserves its own moniker due to the chronic nature of the disease with its unmistakable parallels to the evils of capitalism, its inextricable link to economic development and its disproportionate burden on non-white populations.

The following is a 6-part analysis, an undoubtedly long read, but here are my key findings after analyzing a host of current literature —

I. Current cancer treatment costs are not justified and are actually influencing mortality of patients.

II. Cancer survival rates have been inflated by overdiagnosis and early detection, thus hoodwinking the public into believing that we have made more progress than actual in stemming cancer deaths.

III. The drug development pipeline from bench to clinic is rigged against producing patient-friendly effective drugs due to privatization and profit motive.

IV. Structural racism results in disproportionate cancer incidence and deaths in non-white populations, especially African Americans.

V. The reductionist view that cancer is a genetic disease is shaping public & private policies that dictate the strategies of “War on Cancer”.

VI. A radical revision of how we understand cancer is required if the tide is to be changed towards the public and away from the corporations.