Rush Limbaugh announced yesterday that he has been diagnosed with lung cancer. He used the modifier “advanced,” which does the seemingly impossible thing: it makes the word “cancer” sound even more ominous than it already did.
Just hearing the word “cancer,” in my experience, makes it impossible to parse whatever your doctor says next. It takes a while to recover. But after a minute or two, you start asking the inevitable questions. However you phrase them, they come down to: “Will I live? How much time? What comes next? What are my chances?”
In the case of Rush Limbaugh, we don’t know the answers are to those questions, and it really isn’t any of our business. He has fans for whom his news is devastating, and if he wants to share more information, then that is his decision.
But some of the larger, more abstract news about cancer is publicly available. You might call it the “big picture” on cancer, and it is both fascinating and encouraging. That’s something seems worth noting and even celebrating on World Cancer Day.
It is estimated that in 2020, 1,806,590 new cancer cases and 606,520 cancer deaths will occur in the United States. But it is also worth noting that the American Cancer Society recently reported that “the cancer mortality rate in the U.S. has plunged nearly 30% since its peak in 1991, with the biggest annual decline occurring in 2017.”
That hopeful statistic was cited in a Wall Street Journal editorial titled “Where You Want To Get Cancer.”
The answer to the question — if “nowhere” is not an option — is the United States of America. This is because, as the Journal reports, “The age-adjusted cancer mortality rate is about 20% higher in the U.K. and 10% higher in Canada and France than in the U.S. Survival rates for hard-to-treat cancers are also higher in the U.S. than in most countries with nationalized health systems.”
So for Rush Limbaugh, the good news — if there is any — is that he will be treated for cancer in the United States of America. But, one supposes that he — of all people — did not need to be told that.
We hear a lot about the “war on cancer,” and while that metaphor is, one thinks, serviceable, it lacks something essential. While the struggle is certainly grim enough and the stakes are obviously high enough to justify comparisons to war, the metaphor misses the sense of optimism and the visionary aspect of the crusade (my preferred word) against cancer. There is so much being done and so many breakthroughs are being achieved that one is tempted to be too optimistic and start thinking in terms of imminent victory and a cure. One still needs to factor into his thinking those 600,000 dead in this year alone. This is almost the total number of dead — on both sides — in the American Civil War.
Still … there is so much going on, and so much has already been accomplished. Treatment of the disease has moved beyond sole reliance on surgery, radiation, and chemo — “cut, burn, and poison” in the grim locutions of the trade — into alternatives like immunotherapy. Physicians can now stimulate a patient’s own immune system to work harder at finding and killing cancer cells. This is an idea that has been around for more than a century but was only recently made feasible by modern technologies and the visionary labors of people like Steven Rosenberg of the National Cancer Institute. There are also new and improved means for early detection, like genetic testing. And getting the jump on cancer is still the best guarantee of survival.
The energy that goes into the effort and the vastness of the resources being committed to it around the country recall other great national enterprises and the sort of confidence in eventual success that accompanied them, as improbable as the goals might have sounded at the time.
Split the atom? Sure, absolutely. Here, hold my beer.
Fly to the moon? Piece of cake. First, we’ll need a bigger rocket …
Researchers are busy all over the country, working around the clock, in venues that range from little startup biotechs to large and complex institutions like the Moffitt Comprehensive Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, where I recently spent a few days.
I wasn’t there as a patient. I was doing research for a book, but I still felt a kind of apprehension going in. Moffitt’s mission, after all, is fighting cancer. A certain grimness would be understandable.
What I encountered was something else entirely. The researchers, physicians, tech people, and staff were all unfailingly cheerful and confident. The researchers, especially. They seemed not to use the word “if” so much as they did “when.” And they had a way of making something that to a layman seemed utterly improbable sound almost boringly routine. I still haven’t quite gotten over the experience of listening to one of them talk offhandedly about something he called a “designer lymph node,” which could be surgically placed in the body of a patient near the site of a tumor.
A designer lymph node.
If the crusade against cancer is a slow, grim slog, then somebody forgot to tell the people at Moffitt — and, I’m sure, at other similar institutions, like MD Anderson, St. Jude, Fred Hutchinson, and others.
Morale, on the evidence of my visit to Moffitt, is good, and confidence is high.
One prays for Rush Limbaugh and all the others who listened, stunned and terrified, when their doctor gave them the news. One wishes a speedy recovery for them all and for the success of those who labor in the crusade. We hope that, sooner rather than later, we can retire World Cancer Day.