Setting the record straight on cancer research

Buist-colour

Cancer research is about testing evidence strenuously and objectively and can’t be judged by innuendo, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, writes Steve Buist.

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, and I’ve written about cancer for the past 18 years, which has given me the chance to learn from some of the best researchers around.
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 Hamilton 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.
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.
It turns out that, upon closer inspection, the 75 per cent figure has been taken out of context  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 (based on five year survival). For women with breast cancer, nearly 90 per cent of them can expect to survive five years or more.
Overall, two out of three cancer patients will now survive at least five years, the amount of time once considered the standard 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% survival is seen as the goal. Treating metastatic cancer remains a particular challenge.
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.
I’ve been critical of the pharmaceutical industry 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.
People do die from cancer. Too many people. Treatments are still needed.
All the more reason why the war on cancer must continue.

Steve Buist is the Spectator’s investigations editor. He has written several multipart series on cancer and in 2014, he was named best cancer reporter in a competition sponsored by the European School of Oncology. You can read his winning entry here

Dying: what a curious concept

It’s Dying Matters Awareness Week in the UK – a time when charities and health organisations emphasise the importance of talking about death and bereavement. Addressing death doesn’t come easy to many of us, particularly those whose job it is to keep people alive, so the awareness campaign is much-needed and deserves to spread internationally. Doctors… Read More →

0

One in three of us: why I help spread the word about cancer

  Desirée Branovici is one of 42 peer advisors who help spread the word about prevention and early detection of cancer in the Botkyrka area of Stockholm. This is quite a challenging community to reach out to due to widespread economic hardship and language and cultural barriers. Desirée’s own multicultural background and fluency in Swedish, Romanian, Italian, French… Read More →

Waiting for the next crisis is not a plan

When the Ugandan Government announced, two months ago, its commitment to introduce the legal framework and funding for a comprehensive approach to cancer prevention and care, I welcomed their statement of intent, and wrote about it here on thecancerblog. It seemed like, this time, the Government was not just talking the talk but truly intended to walk the… Read More →

Filling the knowledge gap on active surveillance

Active surveillance of men with localised prostate cancer is becoming increasingly popular. It is an observational approach, involving regularly testing, allowing men with low risk prostate cancer the opportunity to avoid or delay aggressive treatments. Potentially, it’s of huge benefit to thousands of men: a recent study indicated that just 1% of men whose low… Read More →

0

Getting cancer information to those who need it most

Associations between levels of education, socioeconomic factors and cancer are well documented. Stockholm is no exception – the data show important disparities across the city in the rates of new cancers, rates of survival and attendance levels at screening. At Stockholm’s Regional Cancer Centre, we are trying to find the best way to help communities… Read More →