Below are just two examples of promises President Obama has made to “cure cancer”:
2009 address to Congress: “Our recovery plan … will launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American by seeking a cure for cancer in our time.”
2015 State of the Union: “For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all”.
It is an admirable effort to dedicate oneself to. President Obama’s most recent mention of a promise to “cure cancer” was greatly inspired by Vice President Biden’s tragic loss of his 46-year-old son, Beau, to brain cancer. Unfortunately, this is a loss that millions of Americans know all too well. Cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death in the United States and the American Cancer Society projects there will be 595,690 cancer deaths this year. It is a disease we have faced throughout history. The word “cancer” itself comes from the “Father of Medicine”, Hippocrates. Our oldest known description of cancer is found in the Edwin Smith Papyrus and dates back to 3000 BC.
Understanding that the word “cancer” is attributed to more than one-hundred unique diseases, makes it hard to even imagine a single “magic bullet”.Not all cancers are a death sentence (e.g. 5-year survival rates for prostate cancer identified at both a local or regional stage are nearly 100%), but many of the advances made in survival rates can be attributed to better screening measures, such as pap smears for cervical cancer, facilitating early stage detection. Where improvements in overall survival have substantially progressed for breast cancer and melanomas, there is still room for improvements in survival rates for lung and pancreatic cancer. Deadly pancreatic cancer claims more than 90% of those diagnosed within five-years. Liver cancer has similarly dismal survival rates. Meanwhile, lung cancer is an especially large contributor to the global burden of disease, taking well over 1.5 million lives annually.
The question remains, can we “cure” it? If so, is a “cure for cancer” something we will see in our lifetimes? Advances with both radiation and surgical technique have been critical. Monoclonal antibodies have made enormous strides in helping target specific subtypes of cancer, as well as reduce toxicities patients face compared with older chemotherapy options. There is no doubt that the more we learn about the genetics of each individual cancer, the more progress we can make. The evolution of approaches to cancer can be exemplified by the American Cancer Society in our approaches to breast cancer.
I question if cancer is an inevitable consequence of a certain percentage of cell divisions or if so can we find a cure? In light of this new focus on research to find a cure, I also hope we do not abandon current research to find lifestyle causes for cancer to improve overall survival from preventable cancers. Share your thoughts with us using the hashtag #Food4Thought
Nickey Jafari is a 2nd year medical student at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. She was born in Tehran, raised in Kansas, and attended Drake University in Iowa for her Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Biochemistry. She is passionate about global health and is interested in how better access to and quality of surgery can help tackle disparities in outcomes.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.