The Political Reality of “Curing” Cancer

Illustrated by Angela Chen

 “If I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes in America, we’re going to cure cancer,” said Joe Biden, former Vice President and 2020 presidential candidate at a campaign in Iowa in June 2019 [5]. “We’re going to cure cancer” is an optimistic phrase that everyone wants to believe in, yet it continually sets unrealistic expectations. Candidates’ campaigning platforms and use of irresponsible political rhetoric give people false hope for a magic bullet, when in fact the scientific realities of cancer suggest that a cure is an unrealistic goal. According to the National Cancer Institute, it is estimated that nearly 606,520 people will die this year alone from cancer in the United States [4]. While Joe Biden is hardly the first politician to make such promises of curing cancer, how exactly do Biden and other candidates plan on achieving this goal? 

Firstly, why is “curing cancer” not a realistic goal? There are a lot of factors that affect how a person’s cancer must be approached. It is important to account for the differences in biology among patients, especially when there are differences in age. Another factor is the type of cancer. Some cancers are simply easier to treat than others, usually because of where they are located. For example, breast cancer is far less challenging to treat than pancreatic cancer, because it is more surgically accessible (if surgery is the chosen method). According to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), the pancreas lies close to vital organs and therefore surgery is extremely challenging without risking damage to other organs. Another factor is if the cancer has metastasized or not, and this can depend on how soon the cancer is diagnosed. For example, the MSKCC also explains that in pancreatic cancer’s early stages, there are typically no symptoms, but by the time symptoms are detected, the cancer has already spread [8]. Generally, once a cancer has metastasized, surgery no longer becomes a viable option. Instead, radiation, or more commonly, chemotherapy is used. As oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee explains in his book, Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, there have been drastic improvements to cancer treatments. Back in the 1890’s, radical mastectomies were performed for patients with breast cancer, in which the breast and all the surrounding muscles were removed, giving women a very distorted appearance, but fortunately there are now more feasible options like radiation and chemotherapy [7]. However, the success of chemotherapy is now being called into question. Chemotherapy, a drug composed of a cocktail of chemicals, has been the standard cancer treatment for decades. It has been more or less successful in wiping out cancer cells and leaving patients cancer-free. However, similar to bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, cancer cells are posing a problem as they are becoming resistant to chemotherapy.

On June 18th 2019 at Donald Trump’s kick off rally in Orlando, Florida, he announced that “We will come up with the cures to many, many problems, to many, many diseases, including cancer, and others, and we’re getting closer all the time” [1]. Saying that “we’re getting closer all the time” is a stretch, because although technology and resources are available, researchers are at a standstill. Further study into this disease has revealed that cancer is much more complex and there are more factors inplay than anyone realized. The standard treatments of chemotherapy and radiation do not guarantee success for all patients. The only way to get closer to a solution is to keep researching and conducting experiments —it’s a cyclical process that will require patience and time. Vice President Mike Pence also shares similar viewpoints as Trump. An article written by Jason Silverstein from CBS News says when Pence was campaigning in 2001, Pence stated “Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill,” but according to the CDC, those who smoke are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer [6]. Like Trump, it seems that Pence’s trust in science is somewhat questionable. 

 Between the two candidates, it appears that Joe Biden has the most comprehensive understanding of this disease. He has been working on tackling cancer since the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, when Obama asked Biden to lead the “Cancer Moonshot,” in order to allow more access to treatments. Biden then launched the Cancer Initiative with his wife in 2017, branching off of the White House Cancer Moonshot. He then created the Biden Cancer Initiative,  whose mission is to “accelerate progress in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, research, and care, and to reduce disparities in cancer outcomes”. Within this cancer initiative program is another program called the Biden Cancer Colloquia, which “provokes discussion and collaboration within the biotech, technology, science, and academic fields to drive innovation, technology, and breakthroughs against cancer.” The initiative also has a Clinical Trial Design and Enrollment group: “Clinical trials, a critical component in the development of innovative treatments, are especially critical in oncology, a field in which first line therapies aren’t always effective at delaying the disease progression and often aren’t curative” [3]. These efforts demonstrate the Biden campagin’s investment in spearheading clinically relevant breakthroughs in cancer research by working alongside experts in the field. 

Interestingly, there are two sides to Biden’s take on curing cancer. In Biden’s initial statement, he guaranteed to the American people that if he was elected, he would cure cancer. Although this is a rather bold promise to be making, we see that he has the most realistic approach to this issue, but there is a disconnect between his rhetoric and his actions. Despite Biden’s knowledge of cancer, he still chooses to use ignorant language in his statement. Biden’s Cancer Initiative is taking the right steps, but the difference is that the end goal of curing cancer is neither achievable nor realistic. 

Given the scientific realities of cancer, politicians saying they’re going to “cure” cancer is a promise to the American people that they do not have the ability to fulfill.  Politicians reach for the word “cure” because it is a simple way of addressing a complex issue. If politicians blatantly state that curing cancer is unrealistic, they will lose the support of their voters. In order to resolve both ends of this issue, instead of declaring “we’re going to cure cancer,” it would be more appropriate to state “we’re going to come up with better approaches to treating cancer”.  This rhetoric is more realistic and attainable. There is a 

difference between cure, versus treat. For example, for a patient whose cancer has metastasized, it is not practical to tell them they will be cured of their cancer because at that stage, there is no guarantee. Instead, it is more appropriate to say they will be treated. We know that in reality, many patients’ cancers relapse after treatment. Given that this difference in terminology is not that difficult to comprehend, it is puzzling why none of the politicians choose to use this term in their rhetoric—this makes them appear as if they do not understand the mechanisms of this disease. 

In addition to changing their rhetoric, something politicians do have control over is the prevention aspect of cancer. For example, Biden does have a cancer prevention program in his Cancer Initiative [3]. In his program, they focus on improving lifestyle choices. The article “Policy and action for American Institute for Cancer Research” by K. Beck et al. from the Nutrition Bulletin journal discusses the guidelines set to improve lifestyle choices in order to prevent cancer. The report focuses on how certain lifestyle choices, such as poor diet and nutrition, can be a risk factor for cancer [2]. Funding for cancer research and solving the root of the problem is what politicians should be focusing on as this is something that is actually within their control.

Simply put, cancer is a tragic, monstrous disease that hijacks your body and cannot be treated, or “cured” by a simple drug, vaccine, or operation. The complexity of this disease is like no other. It took Richard Nixon much convincing in 1971 to sign the National Cancer Act to fund for cancer research [7]. Now that people are recognizing the cancer epidemic, it shouldn’t have to take nearly as much convincing for politicians to change their rhetoric and advocate for cancer prevention, rather than cancer cure. The way that the Biden and Trump campaigns address the topic of cancer is not only revealing about their views on cancer, but also reflective of their approach towards the coronavirus pandemic.  Whether it’s a virus or cancer, we need politicians who believe in science and use their political rhetoric responsibly.

Edited by: Annie Feng
Illustrated by: Angela Chen

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