In his final State of the Union address one year ago, President Obama announced a “moonshot” initiative to “cure cancer once and for all.” Though the moonshot will be one of Obama’s few health programs to continue under President Donald Trump — its $1.8 billion budget is secure — today, it remains more difficult than ever to imagine a real cure.
Take the 50-year-old man diagnosed with prostate cancer in my clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He received a novel procedure to remove his prostate, and later received focused radiation to try to eradicate any remaining cancer. Unfortunately, his disease returned a year later. But after two new therapies, his cancer now appears in check. And if his cancer does spread, a host of other treatments — including many not even on the market yet — may put his cancer back in remission.
As with most cancers after treatment, my patient’s disease is under control, but not cured. And it likely will never be.
The problem with the “moonshot” idea is that it focuses on magic bullets, at the expense of the majority of current and future cancer patients. To eliminate the global burden of cancer, patients and doctors need an equal focus on prevention as on cure — or we need to redefine the word “cure” altogether. With increased funding for prevention research and wider dissemination of prevention initiatives, we could be even closer to eradicating cancer entirely.