"Everything causes cancer," the lady said as she bit down into a hot dog doubtless poisoned with the carcinogenic additive known as nitrite. Indeed, it might seem that way. Cancer-free bacon is almost impossible to get, a new study goes a step forward in confirming the suspicion that dying your hair and getting breast cancer are connected and even the water supply is under scrutiny.

So a lot of people like the lady are giving up. Best not to think about it and just eat the crap from the food factories. If it kills ya, there's a whole new kind of shrink whose specialty in adjusting you to death, and as for the pain, maybe they'll legalize heroin before the cancer gets ya.

But neither such cynicism nor the obdurate heedlessness of the lady with her toxic hot dog can be allowed to stand as the final word. In 1900, cancer accounted for 3.7 percent of all deaths; in 1975, cancer had moved up from being the eighth largest cause of death to the second, accounting for an appalling 37.8 percent of all deaths in our society.

To a limited extent, the horrifying jump in death rates is owing to longer life expectancy since the chances of getting the disease increase with age, but that's only to a very limited extent. The largest part of the rise must be accounted for by the deterioration of the way we eat, work and live.

The expectation that a psysiologically dirty environment can be redeemed by medical intervention to save the people we've made ill is hopelessly unrealistic. On Dec. 9, 1969, the Citizens Committee for the Conquest of Cancer paid for a full-page ad in The New York Times which read, "MR. NIXON, YOU CAN CURE CANCER-We are so close to a cure for cancer. We lack only the will and the kind of money and comprehensive planning that went into putting a man on the moon. . . Why don't we try to conquer cancer by America's 200th birthday?"

Mr Nixon and Congress answered the call. All the money and more was appropriated and by July 4, 1976, the hearses were leaving the hospitals' backdoors for the graveyards in the same or greater numbers.

The political history of some of the best known cancer-causing substances illustrates the negligently indifferent way our most prestigious and powerful institutions have handled a grave public health problem. In his excellent and valuable book, "The Politics of Cancer" (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1978, $12.50), Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., points out that as far back as 1911 saccharin was a suspect substance; as far back as 30 years ago it had already been fingered by the Food and Drug Administration as a cancer cause. In a free country one might well be reluctant to ban the poison for adults, but certainly to make it universally available to children in soda pop is inexcusable if prevention of this disease is truly public policy.

Again, the same with the cigarette story. It's not, as Dr. Epstein reminds us, that federal tobacco subsidies "include inspection and grading of domestic crops, administration of tobacco price-support programs and loans for sale abroad under the 1954 Food for Peace program;" nor that the president has repudiated his own Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joe Califano, in pledging continued government support for the coffin nail industry. If the government were to stop every form of aid to cigarette manufacturers tomorrow morning, cigarette smoking would be largely if not totally unaffected.

The reason for withdrawal of federal aid is to underscore the seriousness of socially caused cancer and to emphasize a permanent commitment to effective preventive practice. But the government- elective officials of bureacrats-can't go in that direction without outside help.Dr. Epstein said it all when he wrote, "The press is now the almost exclusive medium of major advertising for the tobacco industry. The massive coverage given the Vietnam War, with some 40,000 U.S. deaths in all the war years combined, and the violent crime deaths of virtual silence of the press on a single agent responsible for about 300,000 preventable deaths per years."

It's surpassing strange. The anti-abortionists claim to have defeated an incumbent senator from Iowa for opposing their views, but the same fetuses whose prenatal life is so precious may die a slow and awful environmental death. When one small effort is mounted, the California referendum to outlaw smoking in public places, they tell us health is impractical, health is unconstitutional and cancer is as American as apple pie made with Yellow dye No. 5.