Why haven’t we won the war?

18 Jun 2008 by under Events, News, Research/Treatment

Earlier this month, about 33,000 medical professionals gathered for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The event is the world’s largest gathering of cancer specialists, and includes among its programs updates about various cancer treatments, as well as an opportunity for physicians to visit vendors from drug companies to learn about new products.

A special focus of this year’s conference was lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Mesothelioma affects the lining of the lungs, and may also affect the abdomen or the pericardium (the sac around the heart).

There was a great deal of hope for a new drug, Erbitux, which doctors hoped would prove to have significant results in prolonging survival for lung cancer patients (it didn’t), as well as review of a currently popular lung cancer drug, Avastin, which in its Phase III trial was shown to help keep the disease from progressing.

But among the reports of facts and figures and products and treatments, was a report by Robert Bazell at MSNBC.com. Why, he wondered, are we not further along in the War on Cancer, which was declared as a national health priority in 1971, when President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act.

The Act, Bazell points out, created the as a separate entity from the National Institutes of Health, with a dedicated budget for curing cancer. The NCI started with $230 million per year, and now has a budget of $5 billion.

Certainly, progress has been made, and there have been steady declines in breast, colon and prostate cancers, most due to better methods for early detection, Bazell points out. But, overall, he says, the death toll from cancer has declined only 5 percent between 1950 and 2005. FIVE percent!

What are the challenges? Why are we not winning this war?

Certainly, the nature of cancer itself has something to do with it – there are more than 200 diseases that fit into the definition of “cancer,” uncontrolled cell growth, he points out. And, even though funding has increased, if you adjust that $5 billion budget for inflation, spending on cancer research has actually been falling in recent years, he says.

But I was intrigued by his most compelling argument, which seems so simple. He notes that “it would be very useful to have a discussion on how much we spend on BASIC RESEARCH and PREVENTION, compared to how much we spend on marginally useful treatments.”

Is it possible that we can no longer see the forest for the trees?

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