Medical Innovation Means Cancer is No Longer a Death Sentence

Nearly everyone is thinking about cancer these days thanks to the Ken Burns film on PBS, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.” All of us, including Mr. Burns himself, who as a child lost his mother to cancer, know a family member or a close friend who has died of the Killer C.

The film tells us the magnitude of the murderous disease we are up against: “Cancer is a worldwide scourge. The fastest-growing disease on earth. By 2030, there will be as many as 22 million cases worldwide. Cancer afflicts 1.7 million Americans each year and kills 600,000 of them. More will die from cancer over the next two years than died in combat in all the wars the United States has ever fought combined.”

That’s terribly true, but it hides the good news, which doesn’t get enough play in this film. That is the astonishing progress that has been made in diagnosing and treating cancer. No, there isn’t a cure. But we are getting there, and the treatments since Brian Piccolo’s famous bout with cancer nearly a half-century ago are nearly miraculous. In 20 years, 1.5 million lives have been saved because of medical know-how and highly effective new treatments.

The reason cancer deaths have been on the rise over the past half-century is because other maladies have been largely eradicated. People used to die of typhoid fever, tuberculosis, influenza and bronchitis — all diseases that were major killers of children. Cancer is an old-age, degenerative disease. Alas, you have to die of something. A century ago, cancer and heart disease were the causes of about one-quarter of all deaths. Today, they account for nearly half of all deaths. One American every minute of every day is a cancer casualty.