Setting the record straight on cancer research
Writer’s claim that the war against cancer has failed us does not stand up to scrutiny
First things first. I’m not a doctor, and I’m certainly not an oncologist, so do with that information what you wish.
I do have a degree in biological science, for what it’s worth, and I’ve written a lot about cancer in the past 18 years, which has given me the chance to learn much about the subject from some of the best researchers around, including those right here in Hamilton.
Science is the process of gathering information through the ongoing application of critical thinking. Science is about evidence and testing that evidence strenuously and objectively.
I believe in evidence-based medicine. I also believe in evidence-based journalism.
Recently, the Spectator published an opinion piece with the provocative headline, “War on cancer, like the one on drugs, has failed us.”
The piece relied heavily on innuendo, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience rather than evidence. I think it was irresponsible, bordering on dangerous — the type of piece that falls right in line with the anti-vaccine train of misguided reasoning.
Among the piece’s most absurd statements: that there is no known cure for cancer, that we should stop looking for a cure for cancer, that Big Pharma is sitting on a cure for cancer (which seems contradictory to the first two points), that people don’t die of cancer, and that 75 per cent of doctors would refuse chemotherapy themselves. Where to even begin? Let’s tackle the last point first, which the author stated came from “one survey” he had seen.
Yes, you can find that headline on the web, most often on sites promoting natural remedies or, worse, unproven alternative cancer treatments.
It turns out that, upon closer inspection, the 75 per cent figure has been taken out of context — intentionally, perhaps — from a survey that asked doctors a very specific question about a very specific type of harsh chemotherapy for a very specific type of incurable cancer in its terminal stage. That’s irresponsible.
No cure for cancer? That will come as a surprise to the many men who have been treated successfully for testicular cancer, which has a 97 per cent survival rate, or prostate cancer, which has a 96 per cent cure rate. For women with breast cancer, nearly 90 per cent of them can expect to be cured.
Overall, two out of three cancer patients will now survive at least five years, the amount of time necessary to be deemed a cure. That’s up significantly from about 50 per cent two decades ago.
Could medicine be doing better? Sure. The war on cancer has been disappointing, if a 100 per cent cure rate is seen as the goal.
But part of the problem is that we’ve given one label — cancer — to a disease with a couple of hundred different types. It’s not surprising that finding solutions to hundreds of different problems has proven to be a challenge.
There is no one cancer and what’s become clear is there’s no one magic bullet that eradicates it.
Big Pharma sitting on a cure until they figure out how to monetize it, “as has been rumoured for years,” according to the author?
That’s out there with the faked moon landing type of conspiracy theory.
Look, I’ve been plenty critical of the pharmaceutical industry in the past but that’s a level of cynicism even I can’t comprehend. It’s also highly insulting to the people who have to treat cancer every day.
Do you think someone is sitting on a cure for heart disease because they’re trying to figure out how to monetize it? Osteoporosis? Dementia? Diabetes?
Why would anyone think cancer is different?
Besides, there’s already a simple and effective way to monetize these things — prove that they work and the world will beat a path to your door. Can you imagine what would happen to the stock price of a company that announces it can cure cancer?
Oddly enough, there is one point we do strongly agree on — not enough is done to promote the prevention of cancer.
More than half of all cancer cases are preventable. Changing our behaviours — no smoking, more exercise, better diets, less drinking, protection from the sun — could seriously reduce the cancer burden.
But it still means a significant chunk of cancer can’t be prevented.
What’s the suggestion? That we simply throw our hands up in the air and wish these people the best of luck? Chastise those who developed a cancer that could have been prevented?
A significant chunk of heart disease and diabetes is also preventable. Should we rail against those people as well?
Preventable or not, treatments are still needed.
And finally, people do die from cancer. Too many people.
All the more reason why the war on cancer must continue.
Cancer research is about evidence and testing that evidence strenuously and objectively and can’t be judged by innuendo, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, writes Steve Buist.