Dethroning 'The Emperor of All Maladies'

03/26/2015 04:58 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

We are standing at an extraordinary moment. For nearly 4,000 years of recorded history, cancer in all its forms was an implacable foe. Doctors, patients, and researchers won incremental victories, but for millennia, the word "cancer" was too dreadful to speak aloud. Now each day brings remarkable progress in unlocking, and defeating, the code of cancerous cells.

That rapid advancements have been made against cancer in a tiny sliver of time is made clear in a landmark documentary by Ken Burns and Barak Goodman, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by oncologist Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the film, which airs on PBS on three consecutive nights starting March 30, charts the past, present, and future of cancer from 2500 BC to the genomics and precision medicine that are revolutionizing detection and treatment in 2015.
It's "must viewing"--after all, one in three Americans is touched by cancer-- and everyone involved in bringing this film to PBS has earned the gratitude of Susan G. Komen. That includes a number of our allies in the effort against cancer, such as Stand Up To Cancer, the American Association for Cancer Research, and the American Cancer Society.

But while it's vital viewing, it's not always easy viewing. Dr. Vincent DaVita, formerly of the National Cancer Institute, recounts that, "When I was growing up, I had an aunt who developed cancer and she was hidden away in the attic. People were ashamed when they had it." Dr. Jimmie Holland of Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital recalls what instructors said to her in medical school in the early 1950s: "We were told you don't tell patients they have cancer, because it would be cruel to do so." In other words, don't deliver a death sentence.

Of course, cancer wasn't always fatal in the mid-20th Century, but successful treatments were often horrific and disfiguring. Susan G. Komen's founder Nancy Brinker has spoken movingly of visiting her Aunt Rose decades ago following a Halsted mastectomy for breast cancer. The teenaged Nancy and her sister Susan accidentally caught a glimpse of the hollowed out and "startling remnant" of her aunt's chest. It was concave and burned bluish purple by high-voltage cobalt treatments.

Neither sister ever forgot that sight, but with the prevailing mores about cancer--and breast cancer in particular--they kept this intensely personal experience to themselves. With the passing years, public attitudes changed and cancer moved out of the shadows.

So when Susan Komen died of breast cancer in 1980, her sister Nancy launched our organization. In the decades since, progress against breast cancer--and cancer in all its forms--has been dramatic. As Dr. Mukherjee notes in the film, "We are finally beginning to understand what causes cancer at a cellular, molecular, or genetic level in a way we didn't understand 10 years ago, or even five years ago."

Today, knowledge about a specific genetic mutation allows some women to take steps to actually prevent breast cancer from developing. And if it does, there are treatment options that were unimaginable in 1980. Those options are the result of years of research into new therapies, biomarkers, environmental causes, and more. We are proud of the role Susan G. Komen has played in these advances through research funding.

But a cloud hangs over our advances. While survival rates for many forms of cancer--and including breast cancer--are up, federal funding for research has remained relatively flat for the past 10 years, resulting in real-dollar funding cuts of 20 to 25 percent. To achieve even greater progress, we as a nation must commit to funding the work of the best minds in cancer research. At Susan G. Komen, more than half of our 2015 research portfolio will go to early career scientists who might otherwise be forced from the profession for lack of funding.

We must provide the funding to keep the next generation of researchers in the field, because cancer, in all its forms, never sleeps. As Dr. Mukherjee has said, "Down to their innate molecular core, cancer cells are hyperactive, survival-endowed, scrappy, fecund, inventive copies of ourselves."

If we are ever to dethrone "the emperor of all maladies" we must be more hyperactive and inventive than cancer itself.