In September 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In December 1971, Richard Nixon said we are “totally committed to provide the funds that are necessary, whatever is necessary, for the conquest of cancer.”
To state the obvious, we have succeeded in going to the moon, but not in conquering cancer. Indeed, just about everyone involved in cancer care or cancer research has been asked the following question, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we cure cancer?”
We have learned a lot since the 1970s about the difference between these two challenges. It turns out that cancer research is not rocket science – it’s much more complicated than that.
Going to the moon – There is only one moon, and by studying it, we know how big it is, where it is, and can predict precisely where it will be at any time in the future.
Curing cancer – Every patient is different and every cancer is different. Each behaves in a unique manner. Cancer is not predictable.
Going to the moon – The principles of physics apply, which are consistent and measurable.
Curing cancer – The principles of biology apply, which involve great complexity and are very difficult to describe accurately in mathematical terms.
Going to the moon – We made amazing progress in a short period of time.
Curing cancer – Progress has been slower than predicted because cancer is much more complex than we ever imagined.
Going to the moon – Each space flight provided the public with clear evidence of progress towards the stated goal on the new and exciting media of the day (live TV). The public remained engaged.
Curing cancer – Progress is complicated to explain to the public and cannot be effectively illustrated in a video clip or explained in a short sound bite. Many in the public do not recognize we are making progress.
Going to the moon – We landed men on the moon 7 times and declared victory.
Curing cancer – Even millions of successes are not enough.
However, there are some similarities between going to the moon and conquering cancer.
For both, there is a direct link between societal commitment and progress.
For both, we are in a race. The space race was with the Russians. With cancer, we are racing against time for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.
In looking forward at how we can reduce the burden of cancer, I will paraphrase both Kennedy and Nixon. We need to do research and apply those research advances to the prevention, early detection, and treatment of cancer not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and we need to revitalize our commitment to providing the funds that are necessary, whatever is necessary, for the conquest of cancer.
Only that way will we be able to say at some point in the years ahead that, through commitment and persistence, “we put a man on the moon and, although it took a bit longer, we conquered cancer as well.”