Defying Cancer: the microscope and the moustache

Daniel Gocke

On December 1st, men across the globe finally unencumbered themselves of the overgrown and unsightly bristle that they had nurtured above their top lips for the last month. This came as welcome news to friends, partners, and family, and surely too as great relief to those men themselves, who, divested of their responsibilities for another year, were allowed to rejoin the rest of the family and eat at the dinner table once more.

Despite its somewhat inauspicious beginnings in a Melbourne pub, the Movember campaign has raised £184 million for cancer research charities since its launch in 2004. 71 plucky would-be-Charlie Chaplins joined the official University of Glasgow Movember network this year, and the SRC have contributed £564 as a result of their efforts (as of 29/11/2012). They joined around 354,000 others in the UK who took part this year.

The Movember campaign is a disarmingly cheery addition to the fight against cancer’s weaponry. Despite this and other positive-minded campaigns, such as the Walk for Life, cancer still retains a particular grip on the imagination. Numbers and statistics do the talking a lot of the time: cancer affects 1 in 4 people in the UK according to Macmillan, while in 2008 researchers at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) projected a 75% increase in cancer cases between then and 2030. This fear is reflected in the public response: Cancer Research UK was the third highest grossing charity in the UK last year, with Macmillan Cancer Support a few spots below at number eight. It is also reinforced in the way we talk about the illness and its treatment; a ‘cure for cancer’ is often cited as the ultimate as yet unattained milestone in scientific progress.

Cancer has become loaded with added meaning by this sort of treatment. In less than a month, the 41st anniversary of Richard Nixon’s National Cancer Act will pass. This was the first shot fired in what would subsequently become known as the ‘war on cancer’. This ‘war’ has a lot in common with those other American-led wars ‘on drugs’ and ‘on terror’ in that it struggles to isolate a particular target in what is an extraordinarily complicated and multifaceted problem, and suggests an enemy grounded in wide-ranging areas, but also active within society. Nixon stated at the bill’s signing that his aim was an ambitious ‘conquest of cancer’. This way of describing our response to cancer is not unique. Susan Sontag, after contracting the illness herself in the 1970s, points out that these military metaphors are unavoidable when it comes to talking about cancer: we speak of the disease as an ‘invasion’, and cells’ migration as a ‘colonisation’ despite the best attempts of the body’s ‘defences’. This extends to the methods of treatment, with radiotherapy and chemotherapy borrowing the language of aerial and chemical warfare respectively.

So how far have we come in this war? It’s difficult to say. At various stages, experts in the field have offered encouraging optimism as well as bleaker forecasts. In 2008, former Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Andrew von Eschenbach, declared that “by 2015, nobody will die of cancer”, though he balked at suggesting the possibility of a total cure. Last month, however, 100 of the world’s experts gathered in Lugano, Switzerland to take a progress check. The problem was apparent: it is very difficult to treat cancer as a single disease with a distinct root cause. What we call ‘cancer’ is actually a broad group of diseases, of which there are at least 200 known types. While all that we term cancer follows an essentially similar course – cells proliferating and weakening before migrating to other parts of the body in a process called metastasis – each manifestation has its own particular set of causes. This makes it an exceptionally difficult illness for which to find any sort of comprehensive cure. It is this quality about cancer – its ambiguity and therefore difficulty to treat – that gives it its particular potency in the public imagination.

Cancer research is directed in several ways, but, broadly speaking, it can be divided into three categories: prevention, treatment, and elimination. It is in the first two of these that cancer research is seeing real progress. Cancer Research UK lists among its recent achievements new findings in the genealogy that causes breast cancer, and developments which allow for shorter courses of radiotherapy for patients. In 2011, pioneering research identified the protein that allows for metastasis, the process after which 90% of cancer related deaths occur. In the conference at Lugano, Dr. Umberto Veronesi, oncologist and former Italian Health Minister, summed up the state of play, saying that, “In 40 years, we’ve nearly doubled the curability rates for cancer and in another 40 years it is reasonable to assume that we’ll get near total curability”. Crucially, however, he added that “the second goal of eliminating cancer from the population is a Utopian dream because the incidence of cancer is increasing”.

Of course, campaigns like Movember do more than just raise funds. Elimination of cancer may not be a result we are likely to see in the immediate future, but raised awareness is certainly a progressive step in helping us deal with it better. Movember and other such campaigns offer two non-financial benefits through raising awareness: better treatment through earlier diagnoses of cancers, and a demonstration of public support for those who are already dealing with the illness. These campaigns reclaim the problem of cancer from government departments and tucked-away laboratories, allowing members of the public to contribute against a disease that affects millions. Importantly, they help strip cancer of some of its more isolating effects by utilising the best of 21st century multimedia. They recognise that while this illness may remain a frightening condition for the individual, together it is something that our boundlessly innovative society can confront, and perhaps, someday, beat.