Monday, July 20, 2009

Shooting For the Moon

Forty years ago today, the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed in my life occurred: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their giant leap for mankind to the lunar surface. Just days before that, on my 18th birthday, Apollo 11 blasted off from its launch pad as we all held our breath – a birthday I will always remember. Even now, I often look up at the moon in wonder, marveling that we walked - in my lifetime - on this object a quarter of a million miles out in space. And we did it at a time when most calculations were done with slide rules, and with primitive on-board computers you would barely trust to do a simple spreadsheet or organize your recipes now.

I have thought many times since having cancer that if we can get to the moon in 1969, why can’t we have cured cancer by 2009? Is it that much harder than getting to the moon, harder than rocket science? Apparently so. I guess this is true in part because there is no single disease called “cancer”. There are so many different types, each with its own biology. Each type must be decoded and understood to beat it. As I recall, what we refer to as non-Hodgkin lymphoma is actually more than 20 different diseases. And there are four distinct types of Hodgkin lymphoma. And that is just for what most people consider to be just two major forms of blood cancers. Lung cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, pancreatic cancer – each of these has multiple forms of illness, biologically similar but entirely different at the same time.

Of course, we have made much progress. In 1969, most forms of cancer were looked upon as a death sentence. Many people in my parents generation would not even say the word, calling it the “Big C”, as if uttering the name gave it some special power – kind of like the kids at Hogwarts referring to Lord Voldemort as “He Who Shall Not be Named” in fearful hushed voices. Now, there are more than 10 million cancer survivors in the USA alone.

If I had gotten my Hodgkin lymphoma as an 18 year old the day of the moon shot, my chances of surviving for five years would have been about 40% or even less. When I was diagnosed in 2002 with Stage 3 HL, my odds of living for five more years were about 80%, and someone with stage one of this illness would have better than a 9 in 10 chance of living five years. So with individual cancers, we have made some fantastic progress. I, for one, have benefited tremendously from this.

What will it take to cure the remaining cancers? I wish I knew. But perhaps it will take as massive a commitment as we made to get to the moon – a goal that seemed impossible other than in science fiction when President Kennedy threw down the gauntlet in 1962. But we did it – and not just in my lifetime but 40 years ago! If we made the same commitment today, it is hard not to imagine all cancers being curable within the next 40 years. What a huge difference that would make to so many millions of people and their families! It is obviously very hard, not at all easy, to cure cancer, but when have we shied away from great goals because they were difficult?

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win …” President John F. Kennedy 12 September 1962


Elayne said...

GREAT post Art! May I share this on my blog?

My father-in-law has a brain tumor ( surgery tomorrow) and his sister, our aunt has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Same family as Jim, who we lost to Leukemia 2 years ago.

I think this will be great to share with my family right now.

Racn4acure said...

Elayne - yes, certainly. You have blanket permission to use whatever you want, any time. I do appreciate the heads up.

That is way too much for one family to have to deal with. I hope that the surgery goes well for your father-in-law and that your aunt's breast cancer treatments put her in full remission. We both know first hand how tough it is. Best wishes - Art

Elayne said...

Thanks Art!