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

One thought on “Setting the record straight on cancer research

  1. Sandy Tyndale-Biscoe

    I can’t comment on most of the article, and have not read the opinion piece you criticise, but if your preposterous claim that prostate cancer has a 96% cure rate is any guide, your article is just an ill-informed rant. Over one third of men diagnosed with prostate cancer present with metastatic disease, which is by definition incurable, and the vast majority of these men die of it. Yes, many of them stagger on for 5, or even 15, years of unpleasant treatment but they all know they have not been cured. For this reason 5 year survival figures for prostate cancer are irrelevant.
    You should check your facts, and understand your subject, before putting forward such very ill-informed (and certainly not evidence based) opinions.

    Reply

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