Monday, March 4, 2013

Effectiveness of Cancer Research Spending

"Where Do the Millions of Cancer Research Dollars Go Every Year?" is a recent article by David Chan, MD, in Slate.  In it, Dr. Chan argues that despite the many dollars funneled in to cancer research by the government and nonprofits, the efforts have been ineffective.  The article is an interesting and provocative read.  To me, two things stood out: (1) the current emphasis on cure rather than prevention; and (2) the current emphasis on certain forms of cancer at the expense of others.

Cure Rather than Prevention
Dr. Chan argues that the money spent on research for cures could be better spent trying to promote activities and decisions that reduce risks of cancer, particularly for cancers where prevention efforts can be very effective (e.g., lung cancer, where cessation of smoking has been shown to drastically reduce risks of the disease).  This is in contrast to the criticism of the Livestrong Foundation (mentioned here before) that they do not fund research but instead focus on education and awareness.

Types of Cancer
Dr. Chan also emphasizes that funding has been disproportionately directed to certain types of cancer.  To make the case, he relies on funding statistics of the National Cancer Institute.  The data for the top ten cancer types is reproduced below.
2011 NCI Funding by Cancer Type (Source: NCI)

To provide some context, consider the death rates in the US population by cancer type, presented next.
(Source: CDC US Cancer Statistics)
While you can argue that breast cancer is over represented in research (as Dr. Chan does) and that lung cancer is underrepresented, I would hardly say that the funding is vastly disproportionate beyond those two.  And, if one believes that lung cancer is more preventable than others, research funds for a cure are less pressing than for others.

While I, of course, do not know the correct answer to either of these issues, I find the discussion to be useful and look forward to hearing the answers provided by cancer charities and cancer researchers as the discussion continues.

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