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If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Why Can't We Cure Cancer?

Harold E. Cohen, RPh
Editor-in-Chief

2/18/2011

US Pharm. 2011;36(2):1.

CANCER. There is probably no other word in the English language that is feared more. The mere mention of the “C-word” instantly conjures negative thoughts and depressed feelings. According to the World Health Organization, cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide, and its death rate is projected to continue rising to an estimated 12 million persons in 2030.

I remember as a young child back in the 1950s going to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City with my mother to visit my grandfather, who was gravely ill with throat cancer. I vividly remember her telling me to wait in the reception area and not to come into the room. At the time I thought it was because she did not want me to see my grandfather so sick. It wasn't until sometime after his death that I realized the true reason my mother didn't want me in the room: She thought cancer might be contagious. Such was the widespread ignorance of this disease at one time. Since then, I've had to deal with the deaths of both my parents from cancer, in addition to losing dozens of close friends and relatives to this disease--and dozens more are in various stages of treatment. There is no question that cancer is a formidable enemy.

As a health care professional who over the years has dispensed a plethora of medications to cancer patients, I can't tell you how many times I've repeated the sentence: “If we can land a man on the moon, why can't we cure cancer?” For decades I've read scores of journal articles on cancer and its treatments. And while they all added appreciably to my understanding of the disease, a book I read recently has offered me a whole new perspective on this horrific disease.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is an expertly researched and exquisitely written book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. My expectations were that this would be a very technical book and would not add much to my understanding of cancer. How very wrong I was.

You don't have to be a cellular biologist to understand what is being presented on the book's pages. The work oftentimes reads more like a novel, and it offers readers fascinating insights into one of the most feared and complex diseases on this planet. Dr. Mukherjee skillfully and painstakingly reports on the triumphs and tragedies of treating cancer through the centuries by taking the reader on a captivating journey beginning with the first medical description of cancer, found on papyrus in 2500 BC and describing breast cancer as “a bulging tumor in [the] breast…like touching a ball of wrappings.” Discussing its treatment, the ancient scribe noted: “[There] is none.” While the book's passages are at times both hopeful and depressing, they are always brutally honest. Despite the dramatic improvements in the treatment of cancer over the ages, Dr. Mukherjee solemnly concludes, “What is certain…is that even the knowledge of cancer's biology is unlikely to eradicate cancer fully from our lives. We might as well focus on prolonging life rather than eliminating death. This war on cancer may be best 'won' by redefining victory.”

For every person who has dealt directly or indirectly with cancer, especially the pharmacists who consult with cancer patients daily, this book is a must-read. While it is rich in detail, hope, and despair, it offers everyone who reads it a crystal clear understanding of a very intricate disease. It has personally left me with a deeper understanding of what cancer is and moved me closer to answering why it was probably easier to put a man on the moon.

To comment on this article, contact editor@uspharmacist.com.
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