Under the Radar: Cancer and the Cold War

Under the Radar: Cancer and the Cold War

Under the Radar: Cancer and the Cold War

Under the Radar: Cancer and the Cold War


At the end of the Second World War, a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence. Sixty years later, it is considered a chronic disease rather than one that is invariably fatal. Although survival rates have improved, the very word continues to evoke a special terror and guilt, inspiring scientists and politicians to wage war against it.

In Under the Radar, Ellen Leopold shows how nearly every aspect of our understanding and discussion of cancer bears the imprint of its Cold War entanglement. The current biases toward individual rather than corporate responsibility for rising incidence rates, research that promotes treatment rather than prevention, and therapies that can be patented and marketed all reflect a largely hidden history shaped by the Cold War. Even the language we use to describe the disease, such as the guiding metaphor for treatment, "fight fire with fire," can be traced back to the middle of the twentieth century.

Writing in a lucid style, Leopold documents the military, governmental, industrial, and medical views of radiation and atomic energy to examine the postwar response to cancer through the prism of the Cold War. She explores the role of radiation in cancer therapies today, using case studies and mammogram screening, in particular, to highlight the surprising parallels. Taking into account a wide array of disciplines, this book challenges our understanding of cancer and how we approach its treatment.
  • Examines the postwar response to cancer through the prism of the Cold War
  • Goes beyond medical science to look at the influence of Cold War policies on the way we think about cancer today
  • Links the experience of postwar cancer patients with the broader evolution of what have become cancer industries
  • Traces the history of human-made radiation as a state-sponsored environmental toxin


Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, very few Americans wrote or published accounts of their personal experience of cancer. This was not because there were no survivors—there were—but because the culture could not yet tolerate the revelations of intimacy that such chronicles exposed. So the individual experience of cancer remained for the most part as uncontroversial and as unexplored as the experience of domestic violence or sexual abuse, just one of many crises that families were expected to deal with on their own. What transpired behind closed doors remained behind closed doors, breeding cruelties and coping strategies that, for the most part, went unobserved and unrecorded. So I was startled to see, in a footnote some years ago, a reference to a medical malpractice suit brought by a woman treated for breast cancer in the 1950s. She not only had a name—Irma Natanson—but she left behind, in the public record, detailed evidence of the private experience of cancer in the 1950s.

We now know that the patient’s candid response—to diagnosis, doctors, treatment, recurrence—plays a critical role in moderating cancer management practices. It also helps to keep the more controversial aspects of the disease alive and before the public. This kind of countervailing influence was completely absent from the collective experience of the disease half a century ago. Irma Natanson’s experience makes that perfectly clear. But it also goes further, hinting at the presence of a very different dynamic at work, hastening the arrival of a new and unproven cancer therapy (cobalt radiation). The clues I found in the legal case suggested a murkier back story than those usually associated with medical innovations. So I set out to piece together a plausible explanation for what I came to see as a fateful intersection between a powerful new technology and a defenseless patient. As so often happens, the pursuit led in surprising directions, in this case extending well beyond the realm of science and into the unfamiliar territory of the Cold War. There I found evidence of a political pragmatism—distinctly more military than medical—that put the postwar history of cancer treatment in a new light.

Of course, my unorthodox speculations on the long-term repercussions of an ideology on a disease were baffling to some. It was hard, especially at the beginning, to give a wholly convincing account of what I was up to. But . . .

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