Friday, January 15, 2016

Bowie, Rickman, and Cancer

On Tuesday, January 12, 2016, when President Obama said that he wants a “moon shot” for cancer, comparing it to the “space race” of the 1960s, I paused the television,[1] turned to my husband and brought up the recent death of David Bowie, who had died of liver cancer at the age of 69 only two days prior.[2] “We need, not a ‘moon shot,’ not a ‘war on cancer’ (because “war” is always the wrong metaphor), but a global research initiative, so that one day people say, ‘yes, there was a time when sixty-nine-year-olds died of cancer.’”[3]
There is a problem with President Obama’s metaphor of the “moon shot.” The space race[4] might as well have been called the space war, since it was almost a proxy war with national pride at stake. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, leading to fears that the Soviet Union was technologically superior to the United States. We’re really not worried that someone—China, Russia, France, or Liechtenstein—is about to find the cure for cancer before we do.

A digression: “the cure for cancer” is shorthand. As was so nicely pointed out in the PBS documentary, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,[5] cancer is not a disease, but a category of diseases, and even cancers of the same general type may be quite different diseases. Did it come from damage to the DNA? A virus? Radiation? Carcinogens?[6] There won’t be cure for cancer, but instead, cures for cancers. End of digression.

The space race led to many technological innovations, all thanks to our (unfounded) fears that the Soviet Union[7] had jumped ahead of us technologically (and thus might achieve military superiority). Would that we could have some sort of rival in attempts to cure cancers! Can you imagine if the two major political parties completed to show who was the most ardent in supporting cancer research.[8] There isn’t going to be a proxy war on cancer.[9] We’re really not worried that researchers in Monaco will beat us to the punch and wound our national pride.

Now, just two days after President Obama’s final State of the Union address, just four days after the death of Davie Bowie, I woke to read that Alan Rickman, aged 69, had died of cancer.[10] I want to live in a world in which sixty-nine-year-old people do not die of cancer (or lots of other things). Yes, a century ago, sixty-nine was considered a decent old age. Lots of people born in 1847 didn’t see 1916 for a variety of reasons.[11]

While I might disagree with President Obama’s “moon shot” metaphor, of course we need an initiative to make cancer a disease of the past. But it needs to be bigger than just the United States. We need a global research initiative on cancer. We need to partner with other nations and bring our resources to this. But for that we need politicians who do more than offer lip service to public health. Like wiping out cancer in my lifetime, that remains one of my dreams.

  1. We were actually watching it delayed anyway. We recorded it.  ↩
  2. On the 10th we played some Bowie as we cleaned the kitchen after dinner.  ↩
  3. He gets to pause the television too.  ↩
  4. I think I’m done with quotation marks for now. Maybe I could italicize a word or two. Or not. Besides Wikipedia doesn’t mark the phrase in any special way.  ↩
  5. Based on the book of the same name. I haven’t read the book though, but I did see the series, and if you haven’t you should.  ↩
  6. On this page, the Mayo Clinic gives a simple answer, that cancer is caused by gene mutations, and then goes to to say that while some gene mutations that lead to cancer are inherited, others include “ smoking, radiation, viruses, cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens), obesity, hormones, chronic inflammation and a lack of exercise.” “Lack of exercise”? I’m off to the gym.  ↩
  7. Remember them? They’ve been gone since 1991.  ↩
  8. I write this fully in the realization that politicians are capable of mouthing support for an issue, without every finding a funding bill that meets their unspoken criteria.  ↩
  9. NASA probably really misses the Cold War.  ↩
  10. Bowie had just had his 69th birthday; Rickman was about to turn 70.  ↩
  11. The cancer death rates were probably lower, but the death rates for infectious disease were much, much higher. Zamenhof died in 1917 at the age of fifty-seven, and no one made much about how young he was.  ↩

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