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Cancer Health Center

Cancer: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We've made great progress since President Nixon declared war on cancer 30 years ago, but can the war be won?
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

With cancer survivor Lance Armstrong winning his seventh Tour de France, and walks, runs and other highly visible fund-raising opportunities -- often overflowing with survivors and their families -- taking place almost ubiquitously across the map, it certainly seems that doctors are finally winning, or at least making some significant strides -- in the war against cancer.

But are they?

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The word "cancer" still strikes a chord of fear in most people, but the truth is that today many cancers including breast, colon and prostate may no longer be the death sentences that they once were. Others like melanoma and pancreatic cancer, however, are still proving somewhat vexing and insurmountable. But ultimately, we are turning a corner: survival statistics are up for many cancers, smoking is down, and some of the best minds in the world are trying to crack the cancer codes. Advances Against Colon Cancer

Today, Armstrong is seen as an anomaly, but that may not always be the case. "Lance Armstrong is such an inspirational story that cancer is not only not a death sentence, but he can say, 'I beat it and I am doing something about' it by setting up a foundation and speaking out," says Thomas Glynn, PhD, the director of cancer science and trends at the American Cancer Society (ACS) in Washington, D.C. "I think as survival rates continue to rise, we will see people like him who shine and not only survive disease and actually do well with it."

Judah Folkman, MD, the Andrus Professor of Pediatric Surgery and professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School and director of the vascular biology program at Children's Hospital, both in Boston, agrees: "Lance Armstrong is really amazing, and the fact that we can do it once means you can maybe do it again," he says.

Here's how we are doing so far.

Multifront War Waged

Make no mistake, "we are winning this war, but progress has been slower than we would have expected in 1971 when war [on cancer] was declared by President Richard Nixon," says Glynn.

Calling it a "multifront" war, Glynn tells WebMD that "there is no such thing as one cure for cancer because we are dealing with hundreds of different diseases all gathered under the [category] cancer."

When President Nixon declared war, the "assumption was that to beat cancer, a switch needed to be turned off and we just needed to find that switch," he says. "What we are finding out is that there are multiple switches and different things that turn them on and off."

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