Friday, September 25, 2009

Opting out of a mass delusion

Politicians and researchers have predicted for nearly four decades that a cure for cancer is near, but cancer death rates have hardly budged and most new cancer drugs cost a fortune while giving patients few, if any, added weeks of life.

And for this cancer advocacy groups ask for our money?

Forgive me if it seems ungrateful, but I’m reluctant to give to organizations that claim to help in the fight against cancer. I will sometimes make a donation when I know or respect the person who is asking. I just don’t think my $50 is going to make an iota of difference—or my $500 or my $50,000, if I had the means to give that much.

Melanoma research, in which I have a vested interest, seems especially futile. Improvements in survival rates for metastatic melanoma that can be attributed to research are statistically insignificant. When I decided earlier this year to run the Portland Marathon as a fundraiser, I considered stumping for the Melanoma Research Foundation, which by all indications is an ethical nonprofit. Their advocacy and educational activities are commendable. But I don’t believe the money they earmark for research is a good investment. There is precious little to show for the well-intended donations that MRF has received.

It was in 1971 that President Nixon in his State of the Union address announced that cancer would be cured by 1976. Not to be outdone, Sen. Ted Kennedy advocated for an even larger research budget and a boost in the status of the National Cancer Institute. Since “the war on cancer” began almost 40 years ago, the NCI has alone spent $105 billion. Why mess around with cancer when you can fight real wars in the Middle East with that kind of money?

Like any good politician, President Obama knows a bandwagon when he sees it. In discussing his plans for health care, Obama has vowed to find “a cure” for cancer in our time and that he wants to increase federal money for cancer research by a third for the next two years. Throwing money at cancer research is clearly a nonpartisan affair.

(Cancer, by the way, is not one disease, but a complex of dozens of different diseases.)

Gina Kolata, who writes for the New York Times, has reported that the death rate for cancer, adjusted for the size and age of the population, dropped only 5% from 1950 to 2005. In contrast, the death rate for heart disease dropped 64% in that time. Yet somehow, most Americans believe that if cancer can’t be exactly prevented, it can usually be treated, even beaten.

Unfortunately, popular sentiment is wrong. So are most doctors. It turns out that, with few exceptions, there is no cure once a cancer has spread to internal organs. The best that can be done is to keep it at bay for a while.

What feeds the medical-industrial research complex and keeps the money flowing is hope. Cancer is a fearsome disease, and we are culturally conditioned to do battle against it. A fair question, therefore, is: How much are we willing to pay for hope in a war that is at a stalemate? The answer so far seems to be “more.”

People who have donated to my marathon fund are helping to fund a faith-based community development organization that works at the grassroots. Acorn Outreach helps people live better lives. Our objective is modest, but achievable. Somewhat reluctantly, I have opted out of fundraising for cancer. I pay enough already in tax dollars for supporting that enterprise, just as I support (whether I want to or not) wars in the Middle East. It’s a small act of protest, but until there’s evidence that research makes a difference in cancer survival rates, I intend to stay on the sidelines.


grsmouse said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for being honest.


Anonymous said...

You know far more than I on this matter. I still want to hope that an investment in further research in any legitimate scientific field can produce results. We need to keep the faith.