Sometimes I tell people I’m learning how to treat cancer, and their first question is ‘why haven’t we cured cancer yet?’

We will.  It’s coming.

In medicine we’re much better at treating infections than cancer, but it wasn’t always that way:

  • We didn’t know washing your hands before delivering a baby was safer for women until 1847.
  • The concept of a germ was proposed in 1870.
  • The first vaccine was made in 1879.
  • Penicillin didn’t show up until 1928.
  • The last fatal case of smallpox was reported in 1978, and smallpox was declarederadicated in 1979.
  • The AIDS epidemic began in 1981 when five previously healthy patients were diagnosed with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.
  • Now, HIV has changed from a deadly incurable disease to a chronic treatable infection thanks to anti-retroviral therapy.

When my grandparents’ grandparents were alive, we didn’t know that ‘germs’ existed.  Today we can prevent HIV from becoming AIDS.

The cure for cancer won’t be one discovery.  It won’t be one bold headline or a news broadcast.  Right now we’re in the phase of research that is like walking into a pitch-black room and feeling around until you find a light switch.  Practicing oncology is like standing at a wall of light switches and flipping the right ones (thankfully the scientists label them for us). Discoveries are made one light switch at a time, someday we’ll find the whole room is lit.

We’ll keep pushing things forward and one day we’ll notice that the word ‘cancer’ no longer strikes fear in us the way it does today. Cancer may become a chronic, suppressible disease like HIV has.  Maybe we’ll find better ways to find it early before it’s too advanced.  The days of toxic chemotherapy will be gone, and things like cancer vaccines , cancer-selective antibodies, drugs that target cancer-specific gene mutations, and drugs that cut off cancer’s blood supply will take its place.

But that’s only part of it.

Look at how people phrase this question, ‘when will we cure cancer?’ The we who will cure cancer are not doctors or scientists or drug companies or governments.  The people who will cure cancer are the patients.

Thank you if you have ever participated in a clinical trial.  Your contribution to cancer research is more valuable than any discovery that has ever made by a lab scientist or physician.

Thank you if you have ever accepted the care of a medical student, resident, fellow, or nursing student in an academic hospital.  You are the most important teachers we have.

Thank you if you are currently trusting us to treat your cancer, or if you trusted us to treat someone you loved.  This is not an honor we take lightly.

Thank you for your help.

Because of you, someday we will look back with incredulity and say ‘can you believe there was a time when young people died of cancer?’ and the fear we now feel when we say its name will be gone.