by Karen Oslund

Anyone who has lost someone they love to cancer, which is everyone, is waiting for that day when we hear the news that science has found a cure.  Not just a cure for some kinds of cancer in certain situations, or for cancer that is found early, but for all cancers, at any stage.  That kind of cure.

That kind of cure has not come about yet, despite efforts that span human history and include Nixon’s war on cancer (1971) and the more recent “Cancer Moonshot” (2016). That kind of cure was not there when my grandma was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1998 and it was not there for my friend Roberta, who passed away of cancer last month.  We are all still waiting for a comprehensive cure, and not patiently.

A new book, “The First Cell,” by Azra Raza, MD, captures some of the frustration many of us feel about the slow pace of progress against this dread disease. An oncologist and researcher, Dr. Raza calls for shifting the focus of scientific research from the quest to conquer the last cancer cell to pursuit of the first cancer cell. This book disturbed me, but it also powerfully emphasizes the importance of prevention, screening, and early detection.

According to the American Cancer Society, the cancer death rate has dropped 27% in the past 25 years (cancer.org).  That is encouraging, even uplifting news, in any context.  But the facts behind the figures show that much of the drop is attributable to fewer people smoking in addition to advances in screening and early detection.  Very good screening methods exist for certain types of cancer such as breast cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer, and prostate cancer; but they are unequally accessed in our stratified healthcare system and underutilized generally.  How likely a person is to receive recommended cancer screenings or other primary health care is unfortunately correlated with socioeconomic status.  According to the American Cancer Society, “poverty is associated with lower rates of routine cancer screening, later stage at diagnosis, and a lower likelihood of getting the best treatment.”

Finding cancer before it has spread is preferable, and associated with a better outcome, than finding cancer at later stages.  There are so many reasons, many of them complex, that explain why people do not get recommended screenings, or even follow up on health concerns that could be early signs of cancer, when they see them.  We often don’t prioritize our health for reasons related to demands on our time, money, and attention; but sometimes I hear people say they don’t get screenings because they are afraid of what they might find.  One thought, after reading “The First Cell,” is that you are never better off not knowing.

To the inevitable criticism that her view about cancer is too pessimistic, Dr. Raza explains that she is frustrated by the status quo:  “While being realistic about the past and present, I am exceedingly optimistic about the future of cancer treatment.”  She talks of “nipping cancer in the bud,” and predicts that future approaches will be “designed to gauge disease-caused perturbations years ahead of their actual clinical appearances.” 

Dr. Raza’s book alternates between the technical and the intensely personal, such as when she tells the stories of those she has lost to cancer, including her beloved husband Harvey, in 2002.  Throughout the book, her motive to alleviate suffering is inspired by the truth that she has seen more of it than most.

We all await the day when cancer is no longer a threat to anyone’s life, no matter what type or at what stage it is caught. We should spend the intervening years taking good care of ourselves and each other.  Get your cancer screenings.  Eat right and exercise. Follow up with your doctor when something seems off.   The best minds are working on this problem, and surely Dr. Azra Raza is one of them.

The Cancer Resource Centers’ Cancer Awareness and Prevention series is sponsored by CRC in collaboration with the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency. This information is presented for educational purposes and is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. The Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County is a grassroots organization serving our communities since 1995 by providing information, advocacy, and support services free of charge.