You’ve heard or seen them: the ads or promotions for organizations promising that, if you’ll just support them, they will cure or eradicate any disease you care about. In ALS, it’s the ALS Association promising to “create a world without ALS.” That’s a bold promise, since there is no effective treatment for ALS, and prevention strategies are missing in action. So where will this “world without ALS” come from?
In breast cancer in particular –and cancer in general — the promises take many forms; for example:
An organization in Northern California calls itself “Zero Breast Cancer,” claiming to be “looking forward to a world without breast cancer.” http://www.zerobreastcancer.org/ This goal is, to say the least, interesting, since breast cancer has been with us since ancient Greek civilization, which is where the word “cancer” comes from.
The National Breast Cancer Coalition has “Set a Deadline for the End of Breast Cancer.” http://www.breastcancerdeadline2020.org/. If you’re wondering what date to mark on your calendars, the deadline is set for January 1, 2020. This promise echoes the assurances given when the National Cancer Institute was created in 1937. The answer to cancer has always been just around the corner. It also reminds me of a time several years back that Susan Love, the famous breast cancer surgeon, announced that she would solve the breast cancer problem in 10 years. When I asked her when we should start counting, she gave the answer that drives most of these kinds of promises. She said, “We start counting when we’ve raised all the money.”
ASCO – the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the largest organization representing cancer physicians in the world — is trying to raise money through what they are calling the Conquer Cancer Foundation, which describes itself as “committed to a world free from the fear of cancer.” My read is that they want to be sure there are treatments available when people get cancer (which is where cancer docs make their profits, of course), so that cancer is a disease that is feared less, not experienced less.
The Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation is “fighting every minute of every day to finish what we started and achieve our vision of a world without breast cancer.” http://ww5.komen.org/AboutUs/OurWork.html Of course, since the focus of the Komen Foundation is primarily on detection through mammography screening, it’s hard to understand how we get from finding cancer to a world without the disease. Also noteworthy is how Komen uses the word “cure” (they have trademarked the phase “for the cure” and they aggressively enforce that mark. See http://www.newsy.com/videos/for-the-cure-controversy-over-pink-trademarking/). They repeatedly use the word “cure” in a context where prevention is more appropriate. For example, Komen claims that “Without a cure, 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will continue to be diagnosed with breast cancer.” Of course, even with “a cure” women will still get breast cancer – otherwise they won’t need a cure.
I recognize that hope is important. But do we have to lie to people so they’ll hope for the things they most desire when they or their loved ones are sick?
I cannot tell you how many people I met in my years as a breast cancer activist who believed that “the cure” was within reach, only a few years away if we just threw more money at the problem. This was not a surprising view, given the kind of information most organizations put out about cancer. It’s this kind of information, after all, that drives people to want to support cancer research.
A more rational view – one that explores the assumptions and constraints underlying cancer research and puts the cancer research effort in perspective — is hard, but not impossible to find. Breast Cancer Action’s Cancer Policy Perspective provides such a view: http://bcaction.org/cancer-policy-perspective/. It will take longer to read than this blog, but nothing is a simple as the folks making these promises would like us to think.
Really, is honesty when it comes to what can be accomplished in health really so much to ask?
© Barbara A. Brenner March, 2011