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The Hard Work of Warding Off Cancer

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In a recent New York Times opinion column, author and Columbia University professor Siddhartha Mukherjee says three recent events show what challenges lie ahead for "cancer-control agencies" as they try to stem the tide of the disease. First, a World Health Organization panel added cell phones to a list of possible risks for brain cancer, then the National Toxicology Program succeeded in classifying formaldehyde as a carcinogen, Mukherjee says. Most recently, FDA issued newer and more graphic warning labels on cigarette packs in an effort to get people to stop smoking, he adds. Each of these events "corresponds to a crucial stage in the process of patrolling the borderlands of cancer," Mukherjee says, and successful control of the disease depends on these agencies being successful at each of these stages. The first challenge is scientific, as in the cell phone-brain cancer debate — identifying new carcinogens and developing consistent standards for doing so. The second is political, as in the classification of formaldehyde — getting support for recognition of carcinogens and suppressing lobbying efforts from those who try to downplay carcinogens. And the third challenge is continually shaking up society, as with the new cigarette warning labels, and reemphasizing the danger of things like cigarettes. "Scientific challenges morph into political challenges that lead to social challenges," Mukherjee says. "If reducing the incidence of cancer is a national goal — as it surely must be — then it is essential to recognize the many-dimensional nature of countering carcinogens."

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