Despite all the research, all the money spent, the time invested, new technology available - despite all that - the death rate from cancer has declined by not so much - by about eight percent - in the past three decades.
Yet the cost of cancer treatment continues to rise. Treating a patient with breast cancer for a year costs about $100,000, for stomach cancer $200,000 and for brain cancer $300,000. Those are the cold, hard numbers.
In this TED essay, Paul Ewald and Holly Swain Ewald contend the conventional wisdom about the cause of cancer is wrong, dead wrong and the key to conquering the scourge once and for all may be to treat the disease as we have learned to treat infectious illnesses such as polio or tuberculosis.
You might call their assertion the "Germ Theory" of what causes cancer. And if you ascribe to their theory, the conventional treatment is to attack some forms of cancer as you would other infectious disease with therapeutic vaccines.
That approach would shift the focus from treatment to prevention - the vaccine that fights off the human papillomavirus is an example - but guess what, the authors say that drug companies know all too well that they make more money on treating disease than preventing it. Holy, cow, that's really taking a cynical view of things but the authors contend money is an undeniable and important factor in how we attack disease.
In discussing their thesis the Ewalds give us strong evidence that therapeutic vaccines have been saving many lives in treating some cancers. One is stomach cancer. They point out that a relatively simple antibiotic treatment is highly effective in preventing and sending straight into remission two different types of stomach cancer. Cervical cancer and liver cancer we also know are caused by germs and new treatment might offer new reasons to hope.
Although as far as researchers know viruses don't cause cancer all on their own, they do act as agents in the chain of events that leads to cell mutation and cancer. And as a result we should be shifting our therapeutic focus and resources in the battle. We ought to be identifying how the Germ Theory can be used to fight other types of cancer.
The TED essay is a summary, if you will, for what the authors say is a forthcoming book about the topic of cancer therapy.
I really appreciate the logic and reasoning behind their argument and the supporting research. I don't know if they're right but their reasoning offers a new view of how we might combat a scourge.
Throughout, however, I was sort of put off by the analytical tone. I learned a lot about research and clinical therapies and the raw economics of fighting disease. I had plenty of numbers and statistics thrown at me.
Fighting cancer is a costly battle, true. It's a clinical effort. Fighting cancer is also a story about people, the victims and survivors and their hopes, fears and perseverance. I wanted to read about some of those heroic struggles and what a new, evolutionary approach to fighting cancer might mean for those people. I think to be more convincing the authors need to make more human their argument.