Directed by Wayne Chesler
“You have cancer.” Three of the most dreaded words in the English language. Because even if you “recover” from cancer, the cure is often worse than the disease. Cut Poison Burn is a thought-provoking, often heartbreaking trip inside life with cancer.
The film, based on a stage play by the same name, takes us on a ride through an American medical system that is set up to profit from cancer—but not from its cure or prevention. There are promising drugs and non-invasive therapies that exist, but their use, and the cure of cancer, would put and end to America’s billion-dollar cancer business.
With few exceptions (testicular and cervical cancers), cancer mortality rates have remained the same since Richard Nixon first declared war on the disease in 1971. Neither has treatment moved forward; doctors still cut out the tumor, burn the area with radiation and poison the entire body with chemotherapy. It’s a treatment triumvirate that often leaves the patient sicker than before.
This controversial documentary follows the lives of several people with cancer seeking choices in their treatment. Most painful to watch is 4-year-old Thomas, ill with a particularly virulent brain cancer. The FDA would not allow him access to the one doctor his family thought could save his life, the film tells us, insisting that he first undergo radiation and chemotherapy (modalities that are actually not FDA-approved for children and could leave a child in a vegetative state). By the time Thomas was allowed to try the alternative therapy, it was too late.
Director Wayne Chesler also points his camera at the American Cancer Society (ACS), one of the nation’s wealthiest nonprofits, with a $1 billion dollar annual budget. While the organization’s mission is to cure cancer, we’re told the group spends barely 10 percent of its budget on research, yet its CEO takes home more than $1 million annually. The film also reports the ACS’s history of siding with the medical establishment, specifically blocking women’s access to the Pap test for nearly three decades, thereby condemning thousands of women to painful and needless death from cervical cancer. The organization whose job it is to save lives has instead cost lives.
Cut Poison Burn should make everyone who sees it angry. But it’s as much a condemnation of the current system as it is a call for change. Instead of staying stuck in a past that doesn’t work, its message is to allow doctors to be free to innovate, to move medicine forward—and to heal.
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