Last night, the three-night documentary series "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" based on Siddartha Mukherjee's bestselling book premiered on PBS. In the first episode, the filmmakers traced the disease's history from a reference in a 15-foot, 4,000-year-old Egyptian medical parchment (under cures it reads: "There is none.") to the present, at the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University, where two families are facing unimaginably difficult decisions about how to treat their children's leukemia.
In the first episode, Mukherjee described our quest for a cure as "...one of the most significant human challenges in our history." By the end of the episode, three things struck me that should be part of our conversations about curing cancer.
1. We've always had cancer.
The film starts off with grim statistics. Half of all American men and a third of American women will have cancer in their lifetimes, which means that practically all of us are affected. If you fall in the lucky 50% of American men or 2/3 of American women who won't get cancer, you'll know someone who does.
In the past two years, 600,000 of the 1.7 million Americans with a cancer diagnosis died. According to the film, that's more than the total number of Americans killed in combat in all of the wars in which Americans have served, combined.
Those statistics are just for the United States. Cancer is a global challenge that we've known since the beginning. According to author Mukherjee: "Cancer is part of our genetic inheritance. We will always have cancer amidst us, within us, amongst us."
2. Curing cancer involves a tremendous amount of money.
Today was Harold Varmus' last day as director of the NCI. After tendering his resignation to the president, on March 3, he posted a letter
to NCI staff, grantees and advisors in which he quoted Mae West: "I've been rich and I've been poor, and rich is better."
That quote speaks volumes about a critical element in getting to a cure (or "cures"): money. According to Dr. Varmus
, NCI's inflation-adjusted budget, is down 25% from 2003.
In the film, the most dramatic advances toward effective treatments came when we committed a hefty financial investment in the fight. In the last part of the episode, the filmmakers highlight Congress' bipartisan passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971
. On that occasion, then-President Nixon declared that if the initial investment in NCI wasn't enough to further cancer research
, then we'd just have to invest more the next year.
That investment has paid off. Today, there are more than 14,000,000 cancer survivors.
3. Finding cures depends on social engagement.
Congress passed the $100+ million National Cancer Act overwhelmingly. Only 1 senator and 5 members of the House voted against it. The reason for its success: cancer strikes everyone. Republican and Democrat - no one is immune. Over the previous two decades the fact that everyone is affected by cancer began to get more apparent as the stigma began to abate.
Pioneering researcher Sidney Farber, followed by an enterprising, re-invigorated and well-funded team at NCI in the 1940s and 1950s, helped to alleviate the stigma, fear, and mystery shrouding the disease. People willingly contributed to organizations like the Jimmy Fund, founded by Farber, and the American Cancer Society, but soon they realized that that wasn't enough to launch and sustain critical research. In response, Americans wrote millions of letters to the president and to their representatives.
Today, people are bombarded with information, and it's easy to tune out so much that is competing for our attention. But getting our attention is crucial because to get to a cure, we all have to feel like stakeholders. Starting in the 1940 and 1950s, cancer advocates took a page out of advertisers' playbooks to engage the public. We can use technology: the very vehicle by which so many of us are overwhelmed with information that we ignore.
But we don't ignore everything (think last summer's ALS Ice Bucket challenge...), especially when those things hit close to home. Looking forward to tonight's episode. You can find your local PBS station here.