“To keep pace with this malady, you needed to keep inventing and reinventing, learning and unlearning strategies.”
—Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies

When Richard Nixon launched the “War on Cancer” in 1971, it was thought that cancer was one disease. That assumption led scientists, physicians and patients into a dead-end. One-size-fits-all medicine was found to be woefully inadequate. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy could not deliver a cure.

Taking stock

Today we no longer talk about a “war on cancer” or even finding a “cure” for the “dreaded disease,” as cancer was once called. Yet, paradoxically, we are in a much better place. We know that cancer is a genetic disease.

In fact, researchers have been able to identify at least 200 distinct variations of cancer and have come to understand its place of origin in the body as less important than its molecular pathway.

"Americans are more likely to survive cancer than ever before. In 1971, 1 in 69 Americans was a cancer survivor. Today the figure is 1 in 22."

These discoveries, in turn, have led to better treatments that offer hope for cancer patients based on the principles of an emerging field called personalized medicine.

Facilitated by sophisticated diagnostics, physicians using this approach are able to prescribe targeted therapeutics to treat patients with lung, breast, colorctal and other cancers in ways they never could before.

By the numbers

According to the American Association for Cancer Research, Americans are more likely to survive a cancer diagnosis than ever before. In 1971, 1 in 69 Americans was a cancer survivor. Today the figure is 1 in 22, thanks in part among other things to our understanding the disease as it is, rather than according to some pre-determined conception.

Based on new analytical tools and new drugs to treat sub-populations of patients, we are making notable and important progress. As long as we continue to invest in research, challenge assumptions, and support regulatory and reimbursement systems that will allow us to figure out what works best for each patient, we can expect cancer to become a manageable chronic illness, not a death sentence.