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Draining the cancer swamp

4011473415_46405053bd_zThere's an old adage that applies to many difficult situations that we face in life: When you're up to your armpits in alligators, it's difficult to remind yourself that you should have drained the swamp.

I’ve come to view cancer as a vicious predator lurking in dark waters, eager to attack one out of two of us in our lifetimes. Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States.

Looking at the current national funding model for cancer research, I wonder if society has lost track of a vital goal: preventing cancer, not just treating it. Wouldn’t it be better if we prevented cancer in the first place? Cancer prevention would reduce the devastating physical, psychological, emotional, social and economic burden placed on patients, their families and their friends.

As he stepped down from the role of Director of the National Cancer Institute, Harold Varmus, MD, spoke about the deep complexity of cancer and the tremendous amount of basic research that needs to be done. While recognizing the need for clinical testing, he also called for more pioneering discoveries into who gets cancer, where and why.

The financial constraints facing scientific research force us to make difficult choices. Right now, our current health-care model prioritizes “identifiable individuals” over “statistical individuals.” Identifiable individuals are those real persons in distress who have been diagnosed with cancer. They need treatment, and we are highly motivated to help cure them. The cost of doing so, however, is high: The average monthly cost of cancer treatment has more than doubled to $10,000 over the last decade. Of course, we are willing to pay the costs – these victims are our mothers, our fathers, our sons and our daughters.

Statistical individuals are those who may be at risk, but they may not know it. They may never know that scientific research “rescued” them from a devastating disease. Through prevention measures enacted by individuals themselves (e.g., getting more exercise, avoiding tobacco use) or by society (e.g., limiting chemical exposures in the environment, banning the use of tanning beds for minors), these individuals may be able to escape the scourge of cancer.

When making choices about where to invest limited dollars, it is so much easier to say “no” to statistical people rather than real people.

I don’t advocate taking money away from cancer treatment, but I do advocate a greater investment of federal dollars in research that leads to reducing the incidence of cancer in the healthy population. By tracking and analyzing patterns and trends of cancer, we can identify potential risk factors and inform individuals and communities about positive changes they can make toward living cancer-free lives.

It is estimated that over 50 percent of the 585,720 cancer deaths in the U.S. in 2014 were related to preventable causes. As such, federal dollars directed toward statistical individuals will save both money and lives.

We need to drain the swamp. Our ultimate societal goal shouldn't be to treat cancer more effectively, but to prevent it altogether. We need to intervene as early as possible in the trajectory of cancer. By doing so, we will greatly reduce the extent and depth of human suffering.

Donna Randall, PhD, is chief executive officer of the Cancer Prevention Institute of California.

Photo by William Warby

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