Tag Archives: cancer control

The War Metaphor

I often start talks I give on cancer research with a discussion of the war on cancer. To be honest, I have a very mixed relationship with this metaphor.

The concept of the war on cancer was first popularized in 1971 by President Richard Nixon and used in a more nuanced manner more recently by Vice President Biden. This metaphor emphasizes how working together against a formidable foe will improve our lives and those of future generations. It speaks to the need for immense dedication, focus, sacrifice and persistence to achieve a noble goal. The war on cancer implies a need for teamwork by multiple sectors of society, including civilly minded citizens, government, academia and the private sector. It also implies there is an identifiable enemy, and that total victory is possible. This last point is where the metaphor of the war on cancer starts to break down. In 1971 our knowledge of cancer was quite primitive. We thought of cancer as a single disease where a single approach to victory was possible. We now know that cancer is not a single disease but multiple diseases. Indeed, every cancer is unique and personalized approaches are required for success. In other words, in the war on cancer, there is no single and simple way to target and defeat the enemy.

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Approaching cancer in 3D

Cancer, as in many complex problems, can best be approached by looking at it from every angle, i.e. in three dimensions. We do this literally through reconstructing images such as CT scans, confocal microscope pictures or computerized molecular modeling. We also do this figuratively through the 3Ds of discovery, development and dissemination.

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