Editor’s focus: Cancer should not be a ‘popularity contest’

What important areas of cancer research do we leave behind when we forge ahead so strongly with the most media-obsessed and most lovingly funded ones?

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Up until the moment I sat down to ponder this month’s editorial, I was undecided about using neglect of ovarian cancer as my topic this month, although I had in my queue of potential topics a news release about an Australian oncology researcher, Dr. Jim Coward, who says ovarian cancer patients are losing out as badly needed funds and clinical attention are focused on more prominent—yet not as deadly—women’s diseases.
Then came the retweet on my Twitter feed, of someone talking about how ovarian cancer often goes undetected because the tendency is to assume women simply need to lose weight, instead of actually considering weight gain and pain as possible symptoms.
Given that my mom died roughly two decades ago in her early 50s—of ovarian cancer that went undiagnosed until the very late stages because her physician repeatedly accused her of secret binge-eating when she visited multiple times for unexplained bloating, weight gain and pain—I decided to take that as a sign.
As noted by Coward, an associate professor and oncologist who is leading the first clinical trial of the Australian therapy Cantrixil for recurrent ovarian cancer, ovarian cancer treatment lags far behind that of the more publicized breast and cervical cancers.
“More needs to be done in developing novel clinical trials to help enhance the survival rates for women with ovarian cancer,” he said. “We’re really only gaining small steps in understanding ovarian cancer—how it evolves, how the tumor behaves once its established, where it originates—and making small gains subsequently in developing effective treatments.”
As a pharma/biotech market journalist and as a compassionate human, I am pleased to see progress on any cancer front, breast and cervical very much among them. But also as a journalist, I know how headlines can command attention. I know that when a lot of people demand action on an issue because it affects more people than some other issue, the bigger group and louder voices will likely prevail. And while I have tried as chief editor here to make sure I have a good mix of coverage of the common to the rare and the deadly to the simply annoying, I cannot say for certain that I have not contributed in some way to elevating attention for some diseases at the expense of deadlier ones.
There is a lot of attention on common diseases (in the general public and the scientific one), and there is a lot of attention on very rare diseases (in life sciences and pharma/biotech at least). But what about those diseases in between, those that are not so common as to garner the bulk of attention and funding and not so potentially lucrative as truly orphan indications can be for pharma and biotech companies?
Perhaps it’s time to rethink some of our priorities publically and privately. Perhaps it’s time for those areas that have received attention for decades and made progress to give a little way. Enough for deadlier and less-understood ones to get more attention and make more progress.

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