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The war on cancer, then and now

Dr. Mark Sborov

Growing up in a Minneapolis suburb, my baby boomer buddies and I spent our days playing summer baseball on the neighborhood field, football in the fall, and hockey on our local pond in the winter. But as I entered my teens, new fears crept into my life, and I would be forever changed.

Beyond the anxiety over nuclear weapons and the Kennedy assassinations was the reality of cancer. My best friend died of acute leukemia when we were juniors in high school. The only thing I knew about cancer was that everyone was supposed to get a check-up and send a check to the American Cancer Society. Life was just expected to go on after he died.

Win was expected in finite period of time

Time did go on, and because of my friend’s death, I dedicated my life to his memory. I also wanted to better understand cancer because of my fear of it. So I became a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancer. Back then, we were either naïve or arrogant enough to believe that if we could put a man into space, we surely could defeat cancer. We declared the war on cancer, and we expected to win within a finite period of time.

One of the hallmarks of this war was early detection. In the early 1970s, headlines generated new hope in a blood test known as the CEA (carcinoembryonic antigen), which would detect cancer early and lead to cures. 

Early detection was and still is important. But as we all know, winning the war on cancer is no fast or simple feat. As research progresses and we peel away the layers of the cancer cell like an onion, we are getting closer to many answers – perhaps not one answer as people hoped in the early days of cancer research, but many answers to a complex disease.

A new conversation

Today the conversation has transitioned to the cost and effectiveness of various cancer screening tests. For instance, you have likely heard the discussion about prostate cancer screening:  Is it appropriate for all men or just some, and at what age? 

You might have also heard that the medical community is beginning to redefine cancer: Are there some conditions that may not necessarily be cancer in the pure sense of the word? In short, even as cancer experts gain more understanding of this disease, cancer patients and the public might be feeling as confused as ever.

Yet one of the great advancements in cancer care is the engagement and empowerment of patients. The nuances of cancer do not get in the way of their passion and need for clarity.

A need for understandable, trustworthy information

That is why we, as medical professionals, need to provide understandable, trustworthy information. We do that by being fully informed about the topics being discussed and providing fair and balanced answers to patient questions and public concerns as the conversation progresses.

Today – World Cancer Day – as we reflect on the progress we have made and renew our commitment to the work still before us, Minnesota Oncology continues to rise to the challenge of providing patients with compassionate, informed and effective care. We may not have won the war on cancer in the way we first imagined, but we look forward with anticipation to increased clarity, more victories, and many new curative therapies in the months and years to come.

Dr. Mark Sborov is a cancer specialist and practice medical director for Minnesota Oncology.

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