Cancer funding is broken

I started off thinking I was going to do a bunch of research and number crunching to see if my hunches about misallocated funds for cancer research and treatment were justifiable, but I quickly found someone had already done the work for me, and yes, my fears are well founded.

The reading here is kind of hard slogging and heavy on the statistics but this is pretty important stuff considering we will all be touched by cancer at some point. Bear with me.

I had what I guess you could call a fairly mild case of colon cancer, if there is such a thing, and as a result I really didn't need that much support after my surgery. Even so, I felt what I got was sorely lacking and I had to do a lot of fact finding on my own. I couldn't say how much of this is related to conditions with my doctors and hospital, or if it's more systemic.

But even to a casual observer, the public profile of say, breast cancer, is very high, while the profiles of the equally or more deadly colon, lung and pancreatic cancers are relatively low. Can you name the colour of the colon cancer ribbon? I couldn't.

None of my following arguments are meant to suggest that my cancer is more important than someone else's, but I believe we ought to be asking ourselves if all of our tax dollars and charitable donations are being spent in such a way as to benefit the most people, or those with the greatest hardships.

I found a report from Charity Intelligence Canada which confirmed many of my suspicions, not only about colon cancer specifically, but the whole cancer industry, as it is sometimes called. This report came out in April 2011 and is linked to here, in a CBC story and the actual report. If your life or a loved one's has been touched by cancer, this report is well worth a read. It's well written, rational and makes its points clearly.

Here's the killer quote from the whole report, in my opinion:
...oncologists and cancer researchers are generally of the belief that cancer, as a family of diseases, is unlikely to be “cured” in the way that infectious diseases such as polio and smallpox have been eradicated in the developed world.
The best we can hope for is to transform cancer from a disease that Canadians die from to one that they can prevent or live with as a chronic condition, while mitigating the hardships associated with being a cancer patient or survivor.  
In the way of our times, we are tempted to chase after nonsense and bullshit, in this case a 'cure', when such a thing is unrealistic. I go crazy every time I hear 'run for the cure' or whatever catchphrase is being bandied about.

The report has identified four cancers that are underfunded relative to their deadly impact on Canadians: pancreatic, stomach, lung and colorectal.

What follows are what I consider to be some highlights from the report.

We are making some progress. The death rate for cancers in Canada peaked at about 170/100,000 population in 1988 and has dropped to less than 140/100,000 in 2004, about the same level as the mid 50's.

Promising treatment drugs are sometimes not developed because they are unprofitable. This is not an attack on the pharmaceutical industry, but rather a suggestion that we should find a way to factor in the societal cost of cancer when making research decisions.

By many measures, Canada is a leader or punching well above its weight when it comes to cancer research, and also does the most cost effective cancer research.

This quote from the report is very telling:
Based on the primary drivers of reduction in Ci’s (Charity Intelligence) Top 10+ cancers, Charity Intelligence attributes the reduction in overall age-standardized cancer mortality rates between 1988 and 2004 as follows: 52% prevention, 25% screening and 23% treatment. 
Translation: Our progress on mortality is mostly due to prevention, not 'cures'. We don't need to cure cancer, we need to stop giving it to ourselves. The next big benefit is from screening, i.e. catching it early, then treatment.

If all cancers were diagnosed at the localized stage (i.e. in the organ where they originated and before they had spread to other parts of the body), cancer mortality rates could go down by as much as 48%.

These next two graphs made my jaw drop. They demonstrate pretty clearly that we need to take a new look at where the money is going. Take a look at lung and colorectal cancers in each graph:

 The knockout punch:
Collectively, pancreatic, stomach, lung, and colorectal cancers represent 46% of potential years of life lost to cancer in Canada. 
Yet, these four cancers collectively receive only 15% of cancer-specific research funding and 1.6% of cancer-specific charity funding.
Because of their high mortality rates, these cancers lack survivors to tell their stories and rally support.
Canadians donate 151 times more to breast cancer-specific charities per potential year of life lost than to the four most lethal cancers, combined.
Ci suggests that Canadian donors consider cancer funding decisions in terms of the lives each cancer takes away, to increase the number of lives saved.

Lots of facts and figures right? So what are you supposed to do?


Don't smoke. Watch your weight. Exercise more. Cut down on the booze a little. Eat a healthier diet. Educate yourself about cancer risk factors.

Go to your doctor for regular physicals, at whatever frequency is recommended for your age. Educate yourself about cancer screening and report anything unusual, even the smallest thing, to your doctor. Hiding from your potential health problems is not tough or cool. It's dumb. And remember, it's not just about you, it's about you and everyone who cares about you.

Donate wisely.

Donate more.


  1. Hi Paul, this is the tumblr blogger to whom you left a message for regarding me mentioning your blog on mine. I figured replying on your blog will be the best way for you to see this message :).

    Working at Colon Cancer Canada opened up my 21year old eyes to a world I knew existed, but never step foot in. In just 2.5 months I had the pleasure of working with the some of the most inspiring and determined people I have ever met in my life, for a cause that is unfortunately not getting enough attention in Canada. At the same time I heard many Colon Cancer stories, some good like yours, but many more that were sad and resulted in loss of great people.

    It's funny for me to comment on this post in particular because part of my job at CCC was to solicit for sponsorships from companies. I couldn't tell you how many times I've been rejected simply because people were not interested. It is disheartening that some people would not even give a second thought to something that thousands of Canadians suffer through. I think with that notion, it is truly up to the survivors and other who are aware of the importance to put forth our best efforts to give this disease the attention it deserves.

    I encourage you, if you haven't already, to participate in the Colon Cancer Canada annual "Push for your Tush" walks that happens in May and June across 8 cities in Canada. CCC is a great community of fighters and advocates that are doing the right thing for colon cancer. A story and presence like yours would be very inspiring to other patients.

    My name is Tara, and I'm pleased to meet you. I sincerely am glad you won the battle with colon cancer and wish you good health in the years to come. :)

  2. Tara, thanks for your comments and for cross posting my blog on yours. Nice to meet you too. :)

    Yes, I walked in the Burlington event for CCC this year and am actually on the planning team for the 2012 event. I hear you about getting turned down on the fundraising, as I am trying to get some corporate sponsors drummed up for our local event.

    Will you be working at CCC again or was it just a temporary thing?

    Contact me anytime at