Curing cancer: is it all about the science?

Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Sunday 16 October, Church House, London


After Covid, a wave of undiagnosed and late treated cancers has arisen in the UK and other countries – a consequence of delayed treatments, cancelled screening and operations, and ever-expanding waiting lists. At the same time, Covid vaccine development has shown how medical progress can be accelerated when the right resources and political will are brought to bear.

But a side effect of the pandemic has been a growing scepticism about scientific and medical authority. Half a century after President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, firing the starting gun on the War on Cancer, is this a battle we can no longer win – not because of a lack of scientific progress but because of growing distrust of science and medicine?

‘Cancer’ is an umbrella term for hundreds of different conditions, each with its own particular form and potential treatment and much has been achieved. For most cancer patients today, treatment can extend their lives or eradicate cancer altogether, especially when diagnosed and treated early. A vaccine against human papillomavirus virus (HPV) looks likely to slash the incidence of cervical cancers, while the innovative developments in transoral robotic surgery (Tors) offer significant hope to patients with head and neck cancers.

Alongside increasingly effective chemotherapy, radiotherapy and newer proton therapy, immunotherapy has transformed the survival rate across many cancers. Cell-based treatments are ‘curing’ some types of blood cancer and gene therapies offer hope in rare and hard-to-treat cancers. Furthermore, public-health interventions have reduced some major causes of cancer, like smoking and air pollution.

But the number of cancer cases has been rising inexorably and threatens to kill more people in the UK than all of the waves of Covid so far. Many argue that we will be faced with tough choices if we want to beat cancer, for example tackling ‘lifestyle’ factors like smoking, drinking and eating. Yet public health campaigns are sometimes met with doubt or anger in social media. In addition, anonymised personal health data could be an invaluable research tool, but will patients and the public be willing to share it?

Will we ever be able to say we’ve cured cancer? Can we afford to treat everyone? Is prevention as important as treatment – and how willing are the public to follow public-health advice about risk factors for cancer, like obesity and alcohol consumption? Can trust between medics, researchers and the public be restored?


Nicky Drury
genomic counsellor, Nottingham Regional Genomics Service; former member, United Kingdom Human Genetics Commission

Professor Eliot Forster
chief executive officer, F-star Therapeutics; non-executive chairman, Avacta plc; honorary visiting professor of molecular and clinical cancer medicine, University of Liverpool

Miranda Green
journalist; commentator; deputy opinion editor, Financial Times; co-founder, The Day; former Liberal Democrat advisor

Professor Karol Sikora
medical director, Cancer Partners International; founder, Cancer Partners UK; author, Treatment of Cancer; honorary consultant oncologist, Hammersmith Hospital


Ellie Lee
professor of family and parenting research, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies