I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Licking Death

Seamus O’Mahony
The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery, by George Johnson, Bodley Head, 304 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1847921666 Some time in the early 1970s, cancer replaced nuclear annihilation as Americans’ greatest fear. Richard Nixon, with his keen sense of what exercised his compatriots, famously declared “War on Cancer” – no matter that declaring war on cancer makes as much sense as declaring war on death. No matter that cancer, as George Johnson reminds us in The Cancer Chronicles, is not one, but hundreds of different diseases. “Cancer” is an umbrella term for many different maladies, ranging from the completely curable to the invariably fatal. Those afflicted with cancer not only have to deal with the awfulness of the disease and its treatment, but must also bear the burden of guilt, because cancer, more than any other disease, carries the stigma of having Brought It Upon Yourself. “It is often said,” writes Johnson,, “that two-thirds of cancer cases are preventable – one-third by eliminating smoking and the other third by getting more exercise and eating healthier meals.” So: you smoked, you drank too much, you didn’t eat enough fruit and vegetables, you ate too much red meat and processed foods, you were fat, you got sunburned, you had unprotected sex with the wrong people, you didn’t take enough exercise, you didn’t take up the offer of screening programmes which might have detected your cancer at a stage when it was curable. Coupled with this guilt, many Americans believed that sinister, powerful forces – food manufacturers, the chemical industry, electricity providers, even government itself – contributed also, by poisoning food with additives and pesticides, by polluting the water supply, by exposing whole populations to carcinogenic electromagnetic fields emanating from electrical pylons. From this point of view cancer seemed to be an exception to the American dictum that “shit happens”. Many believe that cancer is a modern phenomenon, “brought on by pollution, industrial chemicals and other devices of man”. The Cancer Chronicles however begins with an account of how bone cancer (both primary and metastatic) has been discovered in dinosaur remains. “Maybe cancer was a great rarity before man began messing with the earth,” writes Johnson, “but a core amount of cancer must have existed all along.” Studies of human and pre-human remains, too, show that cancer visited Kanam man 700,000 years ago (a tumour of the mandible, or jaw-bone, apparently). The new discipline of paleo-oncology found…

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