Last week, three disparate events came together for me in a remarkable way.
Mark Twain spoke about “lies, damn lies, and statistics”. His point was that statistics can be twisted to argue almost any point (something that we see every day in the current political climate). Twain also said “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” When viewed and used appropriately, facts are a fantastic tool in helping us understand complex information. In cancer, such facts help us understand complex molecular data as well as data reporting the pain and suffering from cancer.
Every day at Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, we cancer specialists and researchers make decisions and recommendations based on facts we don’t like. A patient’s cancer has recurred. A treatment is not working. The patient lacks the gene that would make them eligible for a promising clinical trial. A highly promising research grant is not funded. We can’t ignore the bad news. Instead, we accept it, and do our best despite the bad news.
I recently had a birthday, and have reached the stage in life where some of my peers are starting to talk about phased retirement. In thinking about this for myself, it would be great to be able to spend more time with my family (including my new granddaughter).
I am a bit of an astronomy buff. When my kids were younger, I had an eight inch reflecting telescope I would set up in the backyard. My kids and I would invite other families in the neighborhood to look at the night sky. I recall one evening, we talked about the night sky while I was setting up. The constellation Orion was particularly beautiful that evening. We discussed about how the stars that make up Orion’s belt, legs, shoulders and sword, tell us a story we would not understand if we just looked through the telescope at each star separately. We still wanted to look through the telescope (Orion’s sword was particularly interesting), but looking at the constellation as a whole told us an additional story. The whole was greater than the parts.
Vice President Biden spoke recently about how he will spend his time when he leaves government in a few weeks. The “Cancer Moonshot” will be behind him, but his dedication to the cause of reducing the burden of cancer will not. Through his Cancer Moonshot, he has spoken with passion and eloquence about the importance of breaking down cancer research silos that limit our ability to share information about the genetics of cancer. He has challenged us to change our culture and develop new collaborative models for cancer research.
He also expressed concerns about the economics of cancer therapy. More specifically, as we develop better cancer therapeutics, can we afford them? This is one of the items he will address when his term as Vice President comes to an end.
I just returned from one of my favorite meetings of the year, the annual American Society of Hematology (ASH) meeting that I have attended almost every year since becoming a cancer researcher in the late 1980s. At the ASH annual meeting, research and clinical advances in blood cancers and other blood disorders are presented and discussed by scientists and physicians. Several presentations at this year’s meeting led me to think about my first ASH meetings.
We are in a remarkable time in cancer medicine. The investment in cancer research over the past several decades has helped us in our understanding of the biology of malignant cells, and how such cells interact with their microenvironment, especially the immune system. We have learned that cancer is more complex at the molecular level more than we ever imagined.
About a year ago, I blogged about “going to the moon” as a metaphor for cancer research. More recently, the phrase “cancer moonshot” has taken on new meaning. In his state-of-the-union address, President Obama charged Vice President Biden with refocusing the nation’s effort on cancer and cancer research. To quote the President – “Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer… I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control.” The cancer research community was already energized by the amazing potential for cancer research to reduce the pain and suffering caused by cancer at this particularly point in time, and welcomed the renewed focus on cancer research. Nevertheless, there was also a degree of skepticism. Many wondered whether the “cancer moonshot” was another example of politicians over-simplifying the incredible challenge of cancer in the short term. They worried that the result would be raised expectations without significant change or meaningful acceleration of progress in the long term.
It has been a while since I submitted a blog entry, and one of my New Year’s resolutions is that I will get back to posting entries more regularly. I thought I would start with a summary of the past year in the field of cancer in general and the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center in particular.