Saturday, March 07, 2009

March 7, 2009 - A Cure for Cancer? Not.

“We’ve launched a new effort to find a cure for cancer in our time.” Those were President Obama’s words at Thursday’s Healthcare Summit in Washington.

A few days earlier, he said much the same thing in his address to Congress.

This sort of promise by a politician is not new. Richard Nixon proclaimed as much, back in 1971. It’s stirring rhetoric, and I certainly applaud the intentions behind it, but the promise is very likely impossible to fulfill.

The reason? Cancer isn’t just one disease. All the experts are saying there’s no magic bullet, no wonder drug like the Salk polio vaccine, that will suddenly send the nation’s oncologists scrambling to find a new medical specialty.

Cancer is dozens of diseases, maybe even hundreds. Yes, it’s characterized by the tendency of certain cells to grow uncontrollably, rather than shuffling off to die (as their genetic programming would ordinarily direct them to do). Yet, the causes of this cellular misbehavior are legion. It’s highly unlikely that a single, miracle cure is out there, waiting for some enterprising researcher to uncover it. Why, it’s even unlikely there could be a single cure for non-Hodgkin lymphoma – which, by all accounts, is a family of dozens of different diseases.

That’s no reason to stop trying, of course. Surely, there are cancer cures waiting to be discovered, through even modest increases in research funding. If the political slogan, “finding a cure for cancer,” is what it takes to build support for this cause, I’m surely not going to stand in the way.

So, Mr. President: when it comes to rallying Americans to support the cause of healthcare reform, particularly increased funding for cancer research, I say, “Go for it!” Yet, when you hold out the dazzling prospect of a single cure for cancer, I’ll consider that more of a rhetorical flourish than a statement firmly grounded in medical fact.


Fr. John said...

Dear Pastor:

Wonderful site! FYI below. Blessings.

John Taylor

Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Dear Pastor,

For the past two weeks, I've been crafting a new essay (for my column in Oncology Times) about this word -- cure -- in the context of cancer survivorship. So my ears perked up when President Obama used "the other 'C' word." And I appreciate your post today.

Your reference to a cure for polio highlights one of the twists of semantics. Vaccines cured the public health problem of polio, but they didn't cure any individual patient of polio. No, these vaccines prevented people from developing the paralyzing illness. Once patients were infected and affected, cures were not available, and medicine had little to offer other than supportive leg braces and iron lungs.

The central question for me these days revolves around the power and problems of the word, cure, for individual survivors.

With hope, Wendy