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“Nothing short of magic”

Steve Andrew reviews The Price of Experience for The Morning Star, 12 May, 2014

WHEN Mike Marqusee was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2007 he was adamant, largely for reasons of privacy, that he wasn’t going to write about his experience. But he changed his mind and a good thing he did so because he manages to pack into this slim volume of articles more than weightier tomes do in hundreds of pages.

Marqusee began writing not only celebrate the NHS and the treatment he has received but to defend it and, in particular St Bart’s hospital in London, from the current Tory-led attacks. He contrasts his time there with that of his compatriots in the US where treatment is expensive and health insurance even for those who can afford it — and 46 million can’t — rarely delivers what it promises.

Marqusee stresses that the emergence of a fragmented, two-tiered and hospitals-for-money system in this country will hit cancer patients particularly hard, dependent as they are on expensive drugs, integrated and multidisciplinary treatment and a skilled and motivated workforce.

Much of the author’s venom is directed at the drug companies. While most scientific advances have taken place in public hospitals and universities, he challenges the rights of corporations to take out patents in the first place.

Many of the studies that companies carry out are biased, selective and poorly funded with twice as much money being spent on marketing and advertising than on research and development.

Given that the pharmaceutical industry enjoys average profits of 17 per cent it’s obscene that they can sell vitally important drugs at such astronomical prices. What’s so great about a free market which thereby condemns millions to early and, in many cases, unbelievably painful deaths?

Marqusee also challenges those who argue for a “war on cancer,” in which some sort of ultimate cure shall be found.

Not only is this highly unlikely for such a varied, complicated and in many cases completely natural condition, it draws attention away from things which could so easily be achieved in the here and now.

A revolution in our woeful health and safety regime would for example do much to combat the six per cent of cancer deaths caused by occupational exposure to carcinogens.

Less emphasis on drug breakthroughs would also help emphasise “early diagnosis, improvements in care and refinements in existing treatments,” Marqusee contends.

Central to all this would be ending present day health inequalities and a recognition that cancer is a social and environmental issue which Marqusee says can only be fully addressed through far reaching economic and political change.

His comments on how he has dealt with cancer stand in complete contrast to the rather sensationalist, individualised and celebrity-obsessed treatment that the illness often gets in the media. And if you want to know what living life to the full really means, read Marqusee’s notes on William Blake. Nothing short of magic.