Richard Nixon declared War on Cancer in his 1971 State of the Union. Barack Obama devoted one sentence to our investment in promising innovative research in cancer. He mentioned the potential solar treatment that can kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched. Nixon may have employed a metaphor of "overkill" in fighting a terrible disease, but Obama slighted the subject, despite earlier statements about wanting "a cure for cancer in our time."
Fortunately, the rates of new diagnoses and rates of death from all cancers combined have declined significantly in the past decade for men and women and for racial and ethnic populations in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. No small thing. But if you document the emotional fears over cancer articulated in personal experiences that scientists call "anecdotal evidence," the incidence of cancer seems incredibly high.
I personally know five people who in the last year (starting at the age of 40) have been diagnosed with different kinds of cancer, including breast, pancreatic, lymphoma and prostate, all of whom are getting treatment that offers hope that they will live long lives in spite of the cancer. But anxiety reigns over their lives and confusion plagues the rest of us who try to separate scientific evidence from popular suggestions.
The media don't always help. The November guidelines for mammograms as a preventive detection for breast cancer got embroiled in the confusion and economics of the health care debate and still requires some light. When the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) advised that women over 50 should get a mammogram every two years instead of annually as had been previously prescribed, a hue and cry went up blaming "bureaucrats" for cutting costs at the price of harming women.
That's too bad because the advice was not issued by experts who personally or collectively had a vested economic interest in their advice, and the suggestions had nothing to do with Congress or the Obamacare legislative debate. The task force, appointed by the government to make interpretations and recommendations, is without policymaking abilities (although some insurance companies base their policy on the interpretations).
The USPSTF report should instead provoke informed discussion over facts, trade-offs and the impact of having annual mammograms along with a consideration for the increased numbers of false positives that often lead to further imaging tests and pointless exposure to additional radiation.