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Where Dogs Fear to Tread

What Colon Cancer and Rush Limbaugh Have in Common


SINCERE AND HEARTFELT FLUKE: It was Dr. Fred Kass on the line, and he was apologizing in advance for the “really weird idea” he was about to pitch. A gifted oncologist, Kass has helped infuse cutting-edge science with a culture of rare kindness into the corporate DNA of the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara. During my own hour of need, Kass proved unfailingly generous. Since then, when I call to ask for a scientific-sounding way to endow zombies with the stubborn cellular immortality that defines cancerous growth — for the screenplay I should be working on — he’s been more than accommodating. In other words, Dr. Kass has a blank check to get as weird as he wants. March, it turns out, is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and Kass wanted a little help highlighting this fact. Although colon cancer kills more people in California than lung cancer, it has yet to become the hot, new trendy cure-of-the-month club crusade that gets people walking 10 kilometers in the rain. Even though colon cancer killed famed NFL icon and godlike Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi — at the ridiculously young age of 57 — colon cancer hasn’t been branded with the equivalent of the pink ribbon now synonymous with breast cancer. Maybe famed cancer survivor Lance Armstrong — of yellow bracelet fame — could race about on a titanium road bike conspicuously devoid of a saddle — just a seat post — to drive home the point.

Angry Poodle

In most of its manifestations, colon cancer is about as easy to treat as an ingrown toenail. But that’s only if you catch it relatively early on. But many people, it turns out, always seem to have something better to do than get a colonoscopy, an admittedly uncomfortable procedure that we learned from the space aliens who perfected it on their unwilling abductees. When colon cancer gets a head start, Kass said, it’s really hard to control. Initially, Kass figured health insurance was the hang-up; people without insurance didn’t get screened, didn’t get treated, and didn’t get well. Turns out, it’s not that simple. In fact, of the 415 people diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer in Santa Barbara between 2005 and 2009, 350 of them had insurance that would have paid for the procedure. For all-too-predictable reasons, they just weren’t in the mood to have their recta Roto-Rooterized. What happened to those 415, Kass did not say, but the odds were not in their favor. The survival rate for those diagnosed late is about 12 percent; for those diagnosed early, it’s closer to 90 percent. Even I can do that math. The New England Journal of Medicine just released a study that found the colon cancer death rate for people who’d been colonoscopized — and had some polyps snipped in the process — was one-half lower than that of the general population. The moral of the story, I suppose, is that if we are to embrace a diet of highly processed flours, pseudo meat products stewed in a savory blend of mouth-watering preservatives, and all the beer our bladders can hold, then those who make it past 50 must resign ourselves to the occasional rectal probe. Proving yet again that everybody’s an editor, Kass illustrated how I might seamlessly inject such a public service announcement into the intricate woof and weave of a column. “If you’re writing about a real jerk,” he suggested, “you could say, ‘Speaking of assholes …’”

Normally, I like to think I’m not so obvious. But with the prolonged self-immolation of right-wing radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh this past week, I’m not sure I can resist. In their bizarre and desperate struggle to appeal to some hypothetical ultra-right-wing base, the Republicans running for president seem intent on exhuming the festering corpse of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger and burning her anew as a witch. I guess they have no choice. With frontrunner Mitt Romney smugly personifying the most parasitic variant of global capitalism — he didn’t make things; he made deals, and he got rich by slashing jobs rather than creating them — the GOP has a huge problem. Ron Paul wants to set the clock back to the good old days of the gold standard, while Newt Gingrich vows to take us back to yesteryears when gas sold for $2.50 a gallon. But no one can match the radical nostalgia of Rick Santorum, the blue-collar Roman Catholic Republican who contends that sex for any reason other than procreation is immoral. Limbaugh, relishing the role as brass-knuckled enforcer, famously attacked Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke for arguing that large Catholic institutional employers — like colleges and hospitals — need to provide their workers with insurance plans that includes basic contraception. Fluke would have made that argument in front of an all-male Senate committee — investigating the Obama administration’s alleged “war against religion” — but she was barred by the Republican leadership from doing so. Fluke instead made her case at a faux hearing organized by the Democrats. For this, Limbaugh branded her a slut and a prostitute. For three days, he went on the attack, portraying Fluke as an insatiable sex maniac who insisted that her depravity be subsidized by the federal government in the form of free contraception. That taxpayer money was not, in fact, involved was just one of many details Limbaugh overlooked as he demanded that Fluke and her ilk compensate taxpayers by providing home-porn videos. Only a few days later, when Limbaugh’s sponsors began to jump ship, did Rush think to apologize. As of last writing, maybe 30 sponsors had pulled their ads. I’m happy to report that Citrix Systems, the parent company of the Goleta-based Citrix Online, was one of them. I’d be happier if I could report that area businesses that buy their ads directly from KTMS — which broadcasts Limbaugh in Santa Barbara — had done the same. Such, however, is not the case.

In the meantime, don’t forget to schedule your colonoscopy. Tell them Dr. Kass sent you.

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