Recently Joe Biden made an emotional appeal for ‘Moonshot’ (the famous declaration by JFK that America should put a man on the moon) for Cancer. President Obama endorsed this by asking for 1 billion dollars to fund cancer research.
JFK, in his Rice stadium speech, did not talk about small things but instead spoke about big dreams. He said “We will put man on the moon in this century”. This obviously led to the creation of the US space program; a focused endeavor laced with excitement and supported by funding.
Yes, Cancer certainly needs a ‘moonshot’ at this time. It was Nixon who provided an impetus for cancer research by declaring “War on Cancer” in 1971. With 100 million dollars in funding, the National Cancer Institute was established. It is nearly 45 years since that dramatic announcement.
Where are we now?
As I look back on the last 30 years of cancer, I reminisce my journey in the medical field of cancer. I joined as a young passionate and enthusiastic surgical resident in 1982. 34 years later, Cancer is still an unsolved and serious problem affecting humankind and we really need to find solutions. In the last 30 years, there have been series of excitements and disappointments on the management of cancer. I, in my own capacity, fine-tuned my surgical skills, to be able to perform complex surgeries with ease and safety. However there seems to be a sense of despondency among the community and the people: “Why, after billions of dollars of research funding, are we unable to find a cure for cancer?”
I recollect that there were 3 waves of hope showing a lot of promise but soon after faded out. One was a wave of ‘simple blood tests’ called ‘tumor markers’. The promise was that a simple blood test would be sufficient to detect the cancer. But it was soon found that there were too many false positives and today it’s no longer advisable to use for detection.
Second came the wave of chemotherapy. While chemotherapy did have dramatic success in Blood Cancers, the same was not seen in solid Tumors. The responses were limited and partial. There were also significant amounts of side effects and toxicities. Many patients would say that they would rather undergo surgery than chemotherapy.
The third and current wave is targeted therapy using certain monoclonal antibodies, which is supposed to attack cancer specific targets. While there is a lot of excitement, the clinical effectiveness remains a matter of investigation and the treatment is far from affordable.
So where do we see cancer solutions?
As Joe Biden has said, all the research work is going on in silos with very little sharing of information. Scientists are basically suspicious and I feel that the following would be possible solutions for cancer treatment:
- We need a completely radical, out-of-the box mindset. The current therapies of chemotherapy and targeted therapies at best give a few weeks to a month’s response. Not only do we need doctors and scientists, we need the whole army of physicists, chemists, mathematical modelers and computer scientists on board.
- An open source Cancer research consortium: Imagine that by a universal health mandate that there is an open source research consortium funded internationally wherein all the information from all the different labs in the world is pooled. This is the kind of effort that eventually led to unraveling the genome through the human genome project. Why can’t a multinational effort of such magnitude and scale evolve to put together the information for the best minds to act upon?
- Today, the best current solution in my opinion lies in early detection and appropriate treatment. For me, solid tumors particularly in the gastrointestinal tract, if detected early can be treated with good surgery and lead to long time survival; unparalleled in comparison to other forms of treatment.
How do we detect the cancer early, is the big question?
Yes, there are challenges with this but the following story very aptly gives us not only the problems but also the solutions for cancer treatment.
In this story I will be putting some notes as to what is really important and how a particular action changed the course of life for Jayaben.
Jayaben, a counsellor by profession, is a middle-aged lady from Gujarat. For about 4 months she had been having bleeding and discomfort while passing stools. She had been to a couple of doctors who assured her that it is nothing but piles or fissures and she was then treated accordingly. Jayaben was not satisfied, as her symptoms were not relieved. After nearly 4 months she said ‘enough is enough’ and got a colonoscopy done.
Note : Symptoms are always there. Many times there is negligence on the part of the patients and also on the part of the physician to suspect something more serious. You know your body best and if there is something that is not going right insist on further investigations to make sure that you are completely clear.
On the colonoscopy she was detected to have cancer of the large intestine. At the time her immediate reaction was “how much time do I have? I have small children” and obviously she was worried. It is very natural for any mother to be worried about her children rather than her own life and obviously for anyone, ‘how much of time is left?’ is an important question. She was also worried about the fact that if she had undergone surgery, should would have to carry a permanent bag because some patients with rectal cancer do have a bag. These were her fundamental fears. But in the matter of 2-3 days, she pushed aside her fears and decided that there is absolutely no meaning in getting worried. “I need to get the best medical advice in this situation” she affirmed.
Note : Do not be in denial and make sure that you do seek good medical care once the diagnosis is made. Access to information will lead you to good medical care. Make sure that your first treatment is properly done. This is the best chance for you.
She underwent a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy and subsequently surgery. Throughout she only had one feeling, ‘Yes, I am fighting it out for myself and my family and everything will be all right at the end’.
Note: There certainly are huge emotional burdens not only for you but also for your family. But once you get past the initial shock, you should forget it like a bad dream and get on with life.
Today Jayaben is not only helping out many patients through funds but also through counselling and urging them to lead meaningful lives.
While we wait for the moonshot for cancer, I think we must start off with simple things like early diagnosis and good treatment. I am completely convinced that early diagnosis is the corner stone in cancer treatment all over the world but especially in a resource poor country like India. When diagnosed early you have excellent options of treatment.
Today, on World Cancer day my one true wish is that no one should be afflicted with any illness (not just cancer).