Cancer: which way to go?

Climate change is the biggest global problem facing us, but there’s another “C” word causing distress in many lives and, like climate change, is set to get a whole lot worse: cancer.  According to a report (February 2014) by World Health Organization scientists the world is facing a “tidal wave” of cancer, increasing from the current level of 14 million cases to 24 million in 2035, although half could be prevented with a focus on cancer prevention by tackling smoking, obesity and drinking.

The implication is that the other half can’t be prevented. This chimes with the conclusion of another study recently published in the prestigious journal Science, namely that around two-thirds of cancers are not preventable. To put it bluntly, they’re down to bad luck: you  could jog every day, abstain from fags, booze, beaches and burgers, and yet still fall victim to the big C.

It’s important to remember that a third of cancers, including certain types of skin, lung and colon cancer, are linked to lifestyle choices and preventable to varying degrees. But these scientific findings raise important issues about our individual behaviours and how we should fund medical research. Is it worth giving up fags to avoid lung cancer, or a fortnight on the Costa del Sol, only to contract brain, intestinal or pancreatic cancer?  Some might roll the dice in favour of ”eat, drink and be merry”, but the answer to the question is “yes”. Cutting down on bad lifestyle choices won’t guarantee you stay free of cancer, but it makes it more likely.

But what of the efforts  to find a “cure” for cancer? Cancer research, financed from public funds or charitable donations, absorbs large amounts of money in the quest for the cancer grail. But if you don’t know what causes many cancers, apart from bad luck, how can you cure them? Might it not be better to redirect some of those funds to find cures for other illnesses, or improve other areas of the NHS, like coping with the rise of drunken behaviour in A&E departments and assaults on hospital staff?

These scientific findings have profound implications for the size and direction of cancer research. Cancer may be on the rise, but not everyone gets cancer. You might succumb to a non-cancer illness which currently has no cure, but which might prove curable with more research. How should we as a society allocate the scarce medical resources at our disposal? I don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about. Have a happy and healthy New Year.