Are people crazy who predict a cancer cure within the foreseeable future?
“Well, some of them are crazy,” celebrated cancer author Siddhartha Mukherjee told a rapt UC San Diego audience Feb. 25 in the fourth and final installment of the lecture series devoted to his 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies.”
“To me, there is no doubt (a cure) will be part of our future,” he said. “The job of science is to prevent unanticipated death at unanticipated times. And we’re far from that.”
The presentation, part of the Helen Edison Lecture series and moderated by Dean Nelson of Point Loma Nazarene University, provided inspiring rays of insight.
Yet those hoping to hear an optimistic outlook from Mukherjee, a practicing oncologist at Columbia University, were left wondering how soon, if ever, a cure will be discovered for the disease that afflicts one in two males and one in three females in this country alone.
“I sense we’re giving up,” he said. “We’ve lost the kind of energy we had in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We have fewer champions (against cancer). We’re more distracted. We’ve lost sight of the real goals, the real essentials. We need to be vastly more energetic in the face of one of the most monumental challenges of our time.”
He cited the Act Up protests of the 1980s and ‘90s that brought attention to the AIDS/HIV crisis.
“When the chips were down,” he said, “the most courageous among us stepped up.”
Cancer’s universality will be a center point of Mukherjee’s upcoming PBS-TV series, based on his book and produced in close collaboration with filmmaker Ken Burns.
“Statistically, cancer isn’t someone else’s problem, it’s all of our problem,” he said. “This is a conversation that involves all of us.”
Comparing cancer to “Black Death” plague that killed an estimated 100 million deaths throughout Europe of the 1300s, Mukherjee said, “Cancer is a lens that allows us to investigate the accumulation of knowledge in the 20th and 21st centuries."
As a scientist, he’s skeptical of “fads and anti-fads.” But just as optimism fuels the belief that solutions will eventually be found, the quality of hope frequently gives cancer patients added life force.
Noting that optimistic goal-setting is vital to many cancer patients seeking to live a longer life, he added: “Hope is a vital organ, a dynamic organ. I also believe it’s negotiable.”
This presentation of the Helen Edison Lecture Series will be available on UCSD-TV. Visit www.ucsd.tv/helenedison for dates and times. The event was co-presented by UC San Diego Extension and the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology.