Latin American Leaders And Cancer: Another Diagnosis Sparks Speculation

Essay: After Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Hugo Chávez, who also suffers from cancer, aired the possibility of a covert U.S. conspiracy. There may be other slightly less sinister explanations.

Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff (left) and Argentine President Crisitina Kirchner have cancer in common
Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff (left) and Argentine President Crisitina Kirchner have cancer in common
Rodrigo Lara Serrano

BUENOS AIRES -- Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the latest in a series of Latin American presidents and ex-presidents who've come down with cancer. News of her thyroid cancer diagnosis has set off an unprecedented flurry of speculation about what seems to be a disproportionately high number of regional leaders struck by the illness.

Some are asking: does power cause cancer?

Given the growing the growing list of cancer-stricken leaders, it's tempting to say there may indeed be a link. Besides the recently reelected "Cristina K," the list of presidents who've had run ins with the disease or are currently receiving cancer treatment includes Venezuela's Hugo Chávez; Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff; her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo.

Most likely, however, what we're looking at here is more of a statistical illusion. Democracy, when it's well established, generates a high turnover of presidents. The exception to the rule is Chávez, who is keen to stay on indefinitely. Venezuela aside, Latin America welcomes or bids farewell to two or three presidents per year. The more presidents there are, the more likelihood that some current or former heads of state will suffer from cancer.

Another factor to consider is the welcome and powerful advance of diagnosis techniques. With increasing frequency, the sophisticated checkups that leaders, business people and other top-earning professionals receive regularly result in early discovery of the illness. Presidents had cancer in previous eras as well. But in many cases they didn't diagnosis it until it had reached a terminal stage. By then, the leaders were already out of office. In some cases, presidents weren't even aware it was cancer that killed them.

A third factor is that some types of cancer are simply more abundant these days – for different reasons. Think, for example, about all the different industrial food colorings that are finally taken off the market only when their carcinogenic effects had become absolutely irrefutable. Then there's the who-can-stand-it-the-most sport of suntanning, which has led to increased cases of skin cancer.

When micro tumors grow

Yet even with all that in mind, there may actually be something to the idea that the power position influences certain types of cancer, at least in terms of how quickly the disease spreads. This past September, Garth H. Rauscher, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois's Chicago School of Public Health, presented research linking stress to tumor aggressiveness among breast cancer patients. More stress made for more aggressive tumors and vice-versa. His research, based on 2,000 cases, shows a clear correlation.

A connection can be drawn here to the work of Dr. William Li, president of the Angiogenesis Foundation. Through his research, Li has found that 40% of all 40 to 50-year-old women who die in car accidents had "micro tumors' – roughly the size of a ballpoint pen tips – in their bodies. He also found that half of 50 to 60-year-old men have such micro tumors in their prostates. And by age 70, almost all people – men and women – have micro tumors… in their thyroids, like Cristina Kirchner.

Why, then, doesn't everyone get sick? According to Li, it's because most of these dwarf tumors don't have enough oxygen and nutrients to grow more. Given this logic, it's possible to speculate that for some people who are under permanent stress, these tumors find a way to grow.

Robert M. Sapolsky, perhaps the world's top expert on the stress/cancer correlation, argued years ago that stress influences how cancer develops in humans. Sapolsky suggested that people who face stress agents such as a deep depression are at higher risk of contracting cancer years later. The logic is that during periods of stress, the body suppresses in many areas activity related to the immune system. In other words, it shuts off its defenses.

One unproven and certainly debatable hypothesis for why our bodies would do such a risky thing is that we mammals don't like to come off as vulnerable or sick in the eyes of our competitors or predators. The normal actions of our immune system – think of how the body reacts to an allergy – do just the opposite. They don't help us look "normal," which is an important thing to seem to be in order to survive in the forest or savanna.

The men and women who hold the highest positions of power in Latin America's presidential system are targets of endless demands and attacks, both by their allies and adversaries. Millions of people and dozens of rivals, some of them outright cruel, are there day in and day out watching and evaluating every sign of strength or weakness. For the region's presidents, in other words, permanent stress is the norm rather than the exception. It's logical, therefore, to assume the immune systems of our leaders would be compromised.

If that really is that case, it is bad news – and it could help explain our historic tendency to have either authoritarian presidents, weak escapist presidents, or leaders that end up sick. The first group, sociopaths incapable of empathizing with anyone, are less stressed than the average person. The second group of leaders, overly conscious of the gravity of affairs, become paralyzed or simply avoid making decisions. And the third, the conscious fighters, the true political acrobats, spar elegantly over and over again, keeping up appearances until they eventually fall ill.

This theory of presidential cancer could be an argument in favor of a parliamentary system: how many sick prime ministers do we tend to see in Europe? Not many. It may be because they know they can leave or return to power at any moment. Either that, or they secretly practice meditation to keep the stress down. The world may never know.

Read the original story in Spanish

Photo - dilmarousseff

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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