July 24, 1998

Cancer Cure

A person's optimism with regard to finding a cancer cure is inversely proportional to his understanding of the subject.

I have been a member of the American Association for Cancer Research for 40 years. It seems as if almost every year that I attended a meeting, there was a new breakthrough or a new miracle cure for cancer.

Twenty years ago, reports of cures were kept within the cancer research club. It was only after a new procedure was tested and found to work that it was released to the public. The exceptions, releasing unreliable information, sometimes happened when some cancer institute was starting a fund drive. That is the way that it should have remained. Now, every flash-in-the-pan is hyped on the evening news as a "breakthrough."

When you watch a half hour news program, you will get just enough news to keep you interested. The rest of the time is occupied with commercials. The TV people know that if they added still more commercials, that they would lose viewers. As a consequence the ratio of news to commercials has stayed the same for some time and is likely to continue as it has. They now have figured out how to add more commercials by making them sound like news. Instead of a commercial for a drug, we have a news story about a drug, or a car or a new product or gadget. Advertisers have poured a lot of money into the media's coffers and are likely to continue to do so. The network people know who pays their salaries.

The problem with reports of cancer cures, of which only a rare one pans out, is that it is cruel. Imagine the mother of a child with incurable cancer being told that the cure for her child's cancer is just a year away, but her child has just months to live.

The members of the media have a reputation for heartlessness. The first thing that happens when someone is killed is that their relatives are interviewed for their reaction. That is obvious. What is not obvious is the amount of suffering that is caused every time that a cancer cure is hyped that turns out not to be true. And they are not true the vast majority of the time. However, the people who will be broken hearted when the reported new cancer cure turns out to be bogus are not likely to be around for too much longer, so the TV people are not likely to suffer much, if any, loss of viewers as a consequence of those over-hyped cancer cures that turn out to be false.

Most Americans believe that just about anything is possible if you spend enough money on it. Didn't we put a man on the moon? Don't we now have relatively inexpensive computers that can do anything but go to the bathroom? That was the message presented by the cancer politicians at the 1989 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. At last, we were told, we have the tools that are needed to cure cancer. To an old man like me, who has been in the cancer business for a long time, that was a familiar message. I have heard the same thing every few years, whenever some significant progress has been made. I can anticipate my own conclusions by saying that such optimism is as unwarranted today as it was in 1889, when Dr. Roswell Park told the New York State Legislature that if they would give him $10,000, he would find the cure for cancer in 2 years. They gave him the money. As you all know, he kept his promise and cancer is no more.

Why can we send a man to the Moon, but we can't find a cure for cancer? The answer is simple: we know a lot about how gravity works, rocketry, aircraft and various means of propulsion and much more. Since men created computers, everything that there is to know about them is known. Even if everything is known, there can still be big problems, such as the one caused by the fact that two digit dates(98) rather than 4 digit dates(1998) were used on early computers.

So what can we reasonably expect from the cancer research establishment? We can expect a continual increase of our understanding of what cancer is. With this improved knowledge, we may be able to prevent some cancers and detect others at an earlier time. For example, we now know how to prevent roughly a third of all cancer deaths. What is this miracle? Just get everyone to stop using tobacco. But that is not what the public wants. They would like to do as they please and when they do get cancer, for a doctor to give them a pill that will make it disappear.

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