A Cancer on Society?
I recall reading, many years ago, an article buried in the back pages of a newspaper that stated a cure for cancer had been found. I don't remember any details such as what the cure was or who had supposedly found it, but I naturally wondered at the time if the person in question was just a crackpot or if there was any truth to it. I also wondered, not for the first time, that if a cure was found would we actually hear about it, or would it be covered up by the big drug companies who profit from the disease? Now I'm not prone to conspiracy theories by any means, in fact I think most conspiracy theorists are crackpots themselves, but I can't help thinking that there are so many companies making so much money out of cancer that taking away their gravy train with a miraculous cure would not go down very well at the annual shareholders meetings. Chrysler's incredibly fuel efficient turbine car that was shut down by the petro chemical giants because it would eat into their profits comes to mind....
What caused this ancient newspaper article to surface from the depths of my memory? As I write this my mother's third husband, a kindly old gent I am very fond of, is wasting away with terminal bone cancer. At 82 he's no spring chicken, but he's still sharp as a tack and I'll wager dollars to doughnuts he could have given me a good run for my money in any strenuous activity and I'm half his age. Now it takes him all his time just to sit upright unassisted. The cancer is widespread and the prognosis is short term rather than long term.
So it got me thinking once again, how much time and money have we all donated to cancer research over the years and how many decades have we sat and waited for that cure we all so desperately want? And just what have we got to show for all that time and money? The cynic in me has always suspected that drug companies are more interested in profits than cures, and the idea has become even more firmly cemented in my brain since I've been working in the pharmaceutical industry for the past 4 years. I decided to do a bit of research....
My first stop was the UK Register of Charities. Under the Charities Act 1993, all charities registered in the UK and having either a gross income or total expenditure over £10,000 have to make annual financial records available to the public, as well as other information such as trustee names, subsidiaries, contact details, registration history, etc. I plugged the word "cancer" into the website's search engine and got 93 results, and that doesn't include charities in Scotland or Ireland. Of course, this doesn't mean that they are the only charities directly funding cancer research, nor does it mean that research only receives funds from these charities. What it does mean, is that cancer is generating vast sums of money, and by vast I mean mind-bogglingly huge beyond all comprehension. Think of each grain of sand in the Sahara as a pound coin or a dollar and you begin to get the idea.
I'm certainly not suggesting any foul play on the part of any of these charities or questioning their intentions, nor am I saying we shouldn't contribute to them. And I am most certainly not criticising the efforts of the countless workers - both paid and unpaid - who spend a great deal of time and effort fundraising for these charities. A good deal of the money collected goes to other related causes that ease the pain and suffering of those afflicted as well as the people who care about them. This is a vital part of caring for people who are victims of any disease and long may it continue. No, my beef lies solely with the amount of money going to research and, even more so, the amount of money spent on new drugs to combat cancer. Why? Because I don't believe we're getting value for our money, and I don't think we ever will as long as it remains so very profitable not to cure cancer.
Going through the records of all 93 charities plus their subsidiaries (which are even more numerous than the charities themselves) and adding up their incomes and expenditures would be a very large task indeed. Instead, to narrow the focus a bit and to give me a rough idea of just how much we're talking about, I picked out the charities which have the word "research" in their name, of which there are 9. Of these I picked one at random, Cancer Research UK. I hit the jackpot. When I saw what kind of money they were taking in, my jaw hit the table....
Here is a sampling of facts and figures for the period March 2006 to March 2007 from Cancer Research UK:
  • Total income was £468 million.
  • The costs for generating funds rose by only 1% to £127 million.
  • £315 million was dedicated to funding research;
    • £164 million went to research to "improve our understanding of cancer and how to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease".
    • £151 million went to developing treatments.
  • 265,000 people supported their campaign.
  • 24.4 million page views were recorded for the Cancer Research UK website.
  • More than 25 major health & research organisations work in partnership with them.
One charity... one year... £468 million. Now imagine that on a global scale, and project it back over however many decades we've been donating money to cancer research. Scary, isn't it? Obviously this is a major charity monetarily; to be fair it is important to take into account that most aren't taking in anywhere near this much. Nonetheless, when you think of the scale of it and the length of time we've been donating, it's a colossal amount of money any way you slice it. And what are we getting for it? Here's what Cancer Research UK wants to achieve by 2020 (bearing in mind that they hope to annually increase their income and expenditure from the 2006/2007 amount):
  • Three-quarters of the UK public will be aware of the main lifestyle choices they can make to reduce their risk of getting cancer. (Wow. No, really. Wow.)
  • 4 million fewer adults will be smokers, preventing thousands of new cases of cancer every year. (Only thousands out of 4 million? I thought smoking was a bigger risk than that...)
  • The chances of a person developing cancer up to the age of 75 will fall from more than one in four to one in five. (Big deal!!)
  • Two-thirds of all cancer cases will be diagnosed at a stage when the cancer can be successfully treated.
  • We will have a detailed understanding of the causes and changes in the body in two-thirds of all cases of cancer.
  • Treatments that accurately target the cancer and have few serious side effects will be available for at least half of all patients. (Half? What about the rest of the poor buggers?? Again, big f*cking deal!!)
  • Survival rates for all common cancers will increase, with more than two-thirds of newly-diagnosed patients living for at least five years. (I'm still waiting to be impressed here...)
  • The differences in the risk of dying from cancer between the most affluent and the least affluent will be reduced by half. (Ironically, the most affluent have more money to donate to the cause so it will please them to know they're currently favoured in the cancer lottery.)
  • At least nine out of ten patients will be able to access the information they need at the time of diagnosis and during treatment. (Does this mean people currently have no idea what's happening to them? I thought it was part of the doctors' job to inform and educate their patients? Or is this asking too much?? And what about that unlucky one patient out of ten?)
  • Sufficient scientists, doctors, nurses and infrastructure will be in place to ensure continued rapid progress in the fight against cancer beyond 2020. (Rapid?? You're kidding me, right?!)
Funny, I don't see anything in there about actually looking for a cure for cancer. Have we given up on finding a cure? Is a reduction in the number of cancer patients dying within 5 years the best we can hope for??
Now let's assume that Cancer Research UK doesn't increase their income every year until 2020. Let's say that it stays static at $468 million annually, which probably isn't going to happen. By my reckoning this means that they will have collected more than £5.6 billion over the next 12 years. One charity out of 93 in the UK... 5.6 billion pounds. Which means we must be pouring hundreds of billions, maybe even trillions, into cancer research every year on a global scale, and I can't even begin to fathom how much has been collected since fund raising began however many decades ago. And for this, 12 years from now, 5 more people per hundred are less likely to develop cancer and those who do get it have a slightly better chance of living more than 5 years. Gosh, I am so completely underwhelmed....

The problem is, we're so used to dipping into our pockets without thinking every time a fundraiser comes around that no one questions whether the money is actually doing any good or not. It's an automatic reaction. People are suffering, dying... How can you not donate to the cause...? Worse still, how can you even question donating to it?
Easy. Think of it this way: very little of your donation goes to the cause, and the money that does go to it will never cure cancer. Much of your money is going into the BMWs, Mercedes and Audis sitting in the car parks of supposedly charitable organisations. People will continue to suffer and die because the majority of your money is going to large pharmaceutical companies so they can keep their shareholders happy and pay vast bonuses to their executives every year. Trust me, I work in the business. Money gushes like water from a firehose in this industry and much of it goes straight down the drain - and no one bats an eye! And you will continue to shell out money ad infinitum because no one in their right mind will allow a cure to be found for a disease that supports a global economy. Hell, if the objectives of Cancer Research UK are representative of all charities, then we're not even looking for a cure.
Think of the financial implications if the cancer infrastructure disappeared overnight. Hundreds of billions of pounds suddenly stopped coming in, companies bankrupted, millions of people unemployed (and yes, I'd probably be one of them). Am I overreacting? I don't think so. In fact, I think I'm understating it, mainly because I can't possibly imagine all the ramifications of an economic collapse on this scale.
As for that long forgotten newspaper article, I can only assume that the person with the cure was either a crackpot, or made out to be one, because cancer is still alive and well and killing us at a steadily increasing rate.
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