Ending the “war on cancer”

Notice where I put the quotation marks in the title. This post is not about the state of the union of cancer research. It is about an article published in Nature last week by Colin Macilwain that argues we need to move beyond the ideal of fighting a “war on cancer” and build a more constructive approach to cancer care. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Macilwain.

Cancer is not one disease. It is hundreds of diseases from breast cancer to prostate cancer to blood-borne malignancies like leukemia. These diseases are as different from each other as coronary artery disease is from atrial fibrillation. Yet no one argues we need to fight a unified “war against heart disease”. I follow the cancer research community fairly closely, and I am not aware of a single researcher trying to find a unified cure for cancer. We take small steps at a time with occasional paradigm-altering breakthroughs, such as the development of Imatinib (Gleevec) for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). Instead of holding out hope for a single “cure” for cancer, let’s talk about what can be done.

In the immediate future, several ideas, if put into action by the government (which for me is the Ontario provincial and Canadian federal governments), could significantly help cancer patients. First, all oral cancer chemotherapy pills should be provincially funded instead of bankrupting Ontarians by making them pay out pocket thousands of dollars a month (see here for more). We need a clear plan to expand and provide access to palliative care for all patients who are near the end of life. And for those suffering terribly despite palliative care, the federal government needs to get their act together and come up with sensible laws to provide access to physician-assisted dying (the majority of the small number of patients who seek assistance in dying are people with cancer). Finally, although not related to any government action, the medical community and the media need to stop using cancer as war metaphors. It is insulting to people who succumb to the disease when it is said (or written) that someone else “successfully battled cancer”. The outcomes of the disease are not related to how “hard” people try to “fight” the disease.

In the intermediate future, we need to continue the expansion of regional cancer centres in order to provide local access to surgical, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. We need to continue to encourage innovation and trials of novel therapies in an attempt to attain significant changes in cancer prevention or treatment.  One recent example from the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre (where I train) is a study that showed that pre-operative radiotherapy more than doubled the survival rate (from 32% to 72%) for mesothelioma. What we do NOT need to do is waste over $3 million (and give false hope to patients) in studying “naturopathic” or “integrative” oncology. I’ll tell you right now (free of charge): acupuncture, massage, and intravenous vitamin C does not help cure cancer.

Finally, in the long term, we need to focus research efforts (and funding) on the types of cancers with the worst outcomes (pancreatic, lung, ovarian just to name a few). Prevention of these cancers would be wonderful but a more realistic goal is the early detection of these highly deadly diseases. We need to improve how we detect cancers that already have screening tests (like breast and prostate) by better determining who truly needs treatment and who doesn’t (“active surveillance”) as well as how aggressive we need to treat each individual.

These are just a few ideas, some of which I hope to expand on (through writing or my actual research) in the future. But for now, let’s stop thinking of cancer as a “war” that needs to be fought and think about how the medical community can best support people afflicted with this terrible disease.