In 1948 at the age of 1, a baby boy named Jimmy in Southern California contracted polio. The highly contagious virus was passed to him unknowingly by his father. The polio epidemic was rapidly brought under control with the introduction of two vaccines, beginning in 1955. It was too late for little Jimmy to escape the crippling effects of the disease, but he survived and went on to live a full, productive life. As that same Jimmy’s wife, I have come to know polio almost as well as my own nemesis, breast cancer. Every time I hear the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s push for a deadline to end breast cancer, comparing it to the fight against polio, it ticks me off. Breast Cancer and Polio are apples and oranges. The NBCC 2020 Deadline is a lousy public relations campaign based on oversimplifications and a short-sighted attitude.
Most of the time I applaud and support the efforts of all organizations that work on the wide range of issues surrounding cancer prevention and treatment. Even when giants like Komen do incredibly stupid things like their 2011 attempt to de-fund Planned Parenthood, I look at the big picture and believe in general, Komen and others like them have done far more good than harm. I have no beef with the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s current push to lobby the politicos for changes in the entrenched systems that fund breast cancer research. What I oppose is their tactics and message.
Let’s get in the Way Back Machine and return to the 1950’s for a moment. By the time polio hit the peak of it’s mid-century grip on American kiddies, it had been described in the medical literature since 1789. The virus was isolated and classified in 1909 into three strains. In 1938 what is now the March of Dimes was established to help combat the ravages of the disease and fund research. The stunning, rapid success in the hunt for the polio vaccine is one of the greatest scientific accomplishments of the modern era. But it did not happen overnight and it has not been eradicated as the Breast Cancer 2020 folks claim. Polio is still with us in parts of the undeveloped world.
In terms of it’s complexity, fighting the polio virus was not nearly the task science faced against another modern viral dilemma: AIDS. Is there an AIDS vaccine that works as well as the polio vaccine? Not yet. Still, huge leaps have been made in battling AIDS. In both the case of AIDS and polio, dramatic progress was made in slowing a worldwide disease through the use of vaccines or combinations of medications.
Why don’t we have a vaccine for breast cancer yet asks the Breast Cancer 2020 campaign? They claim it is because we don’t have a focused deadline, a meaningful goal that drives all efforts. I say that is hogwash. Cancer is not a virus. Cancer is not a germy little critter that invades cells and goes nuts. Cancer is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla that can arise in any cell of the body due to tiny changes in each individual’s unique genetic code. What triggers these changes and controls tumor growth is at the very heart of biology and evolution itself. Cancer compared to a virus is like the difference between a jet airplane and a paper airplane.
The National Breast Cancer Coalition’s 2020 campaign reminds me of a little kid who stomps his feet and screams “I want it now.” The NBCC’s temper tantrum will pass and breast cancer will still be with us in 2020. So will new drugs, more targeted therapies and greater knowledge. It used to be that childhood leukemia killed the vast majority of kids who became afflicted. Today, it is just the opposite. Most kids survive and thrive. That is real progress.