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My Life’s Calling

On June 3, each year, I note the anniversary of my start as a science writer. Back in 1974, Richard Nixon was still president and I was an energetic idealist with a freshly minted Stanford Ph.D. Although I had a lovely family, I hadn’t yet found my life’s calling. Teaching at the college level had left me dissatisfied and a bit confused. Since my early years, I had wanted to write for a living. But I still lacked focus.

The staff appointment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center was the answer to a prayer. What pride I felt as I first rolled my MSKCC stationery into my IBM Selectric and signed my name at the bottom of my first article. The world suddenly treated me with heightened respect, a reflection of the institution in whose glory I basked. I had discovered what happens when you align yourself with a powerful institution.

Job Description

Officially, my job was to write one article per month for the center’s newsletter, as well as various press releases and the research section of the annual report. But I soon discovered that the position held responsibilities that were not included in my job description. One of my first assignments was to investigate the background of the disgraced William Summerlin, MD. It was feared that Dr. Summerlin might attempt to implicate top officials in the scandal surrounding his falsified research. My role was to phone Summerlin’’s previous employers and (not to beat about the bush) to “dig up dirt” on him. I obediently took up this detective work, little realizing that I might someday be the object of similar scrutiny.

A Hefty Folder

I was also handed a hefty folder of unanswered letters from the general public about unconventional cancer treatments. On the front, in big black letters, someone had block-lettered “PSHAW.” Initially, I thought that this was Sloan-Kettering’s collective judgment on alternative treatments until I learned that it was the first initial and last name of my predecessor, Phyllis Shaw.

The folder grew even thicker with questions, suggestions, and diatribes concerning cancer. The public wanted an outlet for its opinions on the war on cancer, but the prevailing view at Sloan-Kettering was that the answers would come only from professional scientists. We were obliged to humor the public because it paid the bills, but we weren’t expected to take their opinions seriously.

Although this was how I was indoctrinated, I had inherited from my father an interest in human nature and I enjoyed listening to various speculative theories of cancer. Luckily for me, so did my boss, Dr. Good, and he encouraged me in this direction. One woman tried to convince me that cancer could be cured by drinking water that ran beneath a pine forest. She offered to send me some. About half the letters concerned a substance called laetrile, derived from apricot kernels. People demanded to know why we weren’t testing or using what they called “vitamin B17.” Our scientists scoffed at the notion.

The World of Alternative Cancer Treatments

On my lunch hour, however, I browsed through the local health food stores, devouring literature about alternative cancer treatments. It was through reading these enthusiastic tracts that I first learned about the world of alternative cancer treatments. My office bookshelf filled up with works on laetrile, the Hoxsey herbs, and the Gerson diet. By default, I became Sloan-Kettering’s de facto expert on alternative treatments.

Until 1976, Americans had no federally funded Cancer Information Service to provide answers to their questions about cancer, and public inquiries to cancer centers got catch-as-catch-can answers. Many calls to MSKCC were forwarded to the public affairs department, and I became their de facto “answer man.” Soon, MSKCC’s telephone operators had notes taped to their switchboards stating that “calls about alternative medicine go to Dr. Moss.” Over the following years, I answered hundreds of such calls, listening with interest to patients’ experiences and problems and offering ad hoc advice when it seemed appropriate. This was good training for my role as a consultant to thousands of cancer patients, which has been my “day job” since 1993.

Watch Ralph Moss’ Personal Story Part 1

Read Cancer as a Disease of Civilization