Check out this excerpt from an awesome George Johnson column in the New York Times yesterday:
Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer
Half a century ago, the story goes, a person was far more likely to die from heart disease. Now cancer is on the verge of overtaking it as the No. 1 cause of death.
Troubling as this sounds, the comparison is unfair. Cancer is, by far, the harder problem — a condition deeply ingrained in the nature of evolution and multicellular life. Given that obstacle, cancer researchers are fighting and even winning smaller battles: reducing the death toll from childhood cancers and preventing — and sometimes curing — cancers that strike people in their prime. But when it comes to diseases of the elderly, there can be no decisive victory. This is, in the end, a zero-sum game.
The rhetoric about the war on cancer implies that with enough money and determination, science might reduce cancer mortality as dramatically as it has with other leading killers — one more notch in medicine’s belt. But what, then, would we die from? Heart disease and cancer are primarily diseases of aging. Fewer people succumbing to one means more people living long enough to die from the other.
The newest cancer report, which came out in mid-December, put the best possible face on things. If one accounts for the advancing age of the population — with the graying of the baby boomers, death itself is on the rise — cancer mortality has actually been decreasing bit by bit in recent decades. But the decline has been modest compared with other threats.
A graph from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells the story. There are two lines representing the age-adjusted mortality rate from heart disease and from cancer. In 1958 when the diagram begins, the line for heart disease is decisively on top. But it plunges by 68 percent while cancer declines so slowly — by only about 10 percent — that the slope appears far less significant.
Measuring from 1990, when tobacco had finished the worst of its damage and cancer deaths were peaking, the difference is somewhat less pronounced: a decline of 44 percent for heart disease and 20 percent for cancer. But as the collision course continues, cancer seems insistent on becoming the one left standing — death’s final resort. (The wild card in the equation is death from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, which has been advancing year after year.)
Though not exactly consoling, the fact that we have reached this standoff is a kind of success. A century ago average life expectancy at birth was in the low to mid-50s. Now it is almost 79, and if you make it to 65 you’re likely to live into your mid-80s. The median age of cancer death is 72. We live long enough for it to get us…
A fair argument. The medical establishment has obviously made progress fighting cancer over the past several decades. But the gains have been unevenly spread across different types of cancer–and cures have been few and far between.
But its a new year. Hope springs eternal, right? There are a lot of dedicated, hard working researchers scrambling to find chinks in cancer’s armor.
But sometimes hard work isn’t enough. Sometimes luck is required.
Here’s a link to the column. There’s a lot more there to contemplate:
Good luck, cancer fighting heroes! Here’s hoping 2014 is the year those small cracks split into canyons…
Feel good and keep smiling! Pat