Yesterday, we posted a picture on our Facebook page, which carried a bold statement from one of our senior researchers, Professor Gerard Evan. In it, he said with confidence that he felt that his children, now in their twenties, “will never have to worry about dying from cancer”.
It was a quote taken from an inspiring talk he gave at our head office, which you can watch here.
Our intention in posting the quote was to convey the sense of excitement, optimism and hope that came across to us in Professor Evan’s talk. As he points out, the last few years have seen some extraordinary steps forward in understanding how to tackle the incredibly complex set of diseases we collectively call cancer. There’s the real promise of substantial progress over the coming decades.
But of course there are caveats. Medical research – particularly cancer research – is littered with stories of ‘breakthroughs’ that weren’t. Of false dawns. And of false hope. We at Cancer Research UK are keenly aware of the need to keep feet firmly on the ground when it comes to making promises about the future. The people many of us speak to every day, who are experiencing cancer first-hand, are a reminder of the long and difficult journey ahead.
But we also need to inspire hope – and we felt that Professor Evan’s talk struck the right balance between optimism and caution.
Many people who saw our Facebook post understood where we were coming from. But many didn’t, and several commented that they were upset, confused or angry at what they thought we were promising.
We’re extremely sorry about this, and we’re very sad that people have reacted negatively to something we were excited about sharing. In retrospect, it was a mistake on our part to not include a link to a video in the initial post, and we should have been clearer in the copy accompanying the picture about what we meant.
Context is everything in science communication, and in this case, given the bold, uncompromising nature of the statement we were using, we should have been more sensitive to the feelings of some of our audience, and made doubly sure that our message came across as intended.
But we stand by Professor Evan’s sentiment. Through scientific research, we will find a way to beat cancer. This emphatically won’t mean inventing a magic bullet to cure all cancers. But it will mean preventing more cases, detecting it earlier, stopping it spreading and – perhaps most crucially of all – finding a way to treat cancer after it’s spread.
These are not trivial challenges, but without the passion and expertise of researchers like Professor Evan, they’re not challenges we could even begin to think about tackling.
Kath Anderton January 19, 2013
“Many people who saw our Facebook post understood where we were coming from. But many didn’t, and several commented that they were upset, confused or angry at what they thought we were promising.”
Sadly, many people who saw your Facebook post were parents of children with cancer. A year ago I probably would have said with confidence that Lennie was very unlikely to develop Ewing’s Sarcoma of the sphenoid bone, which would leave him blind and brain damaged for the rest of his life. Lennie is not yet 2. Ewing’s Sarcoma usually hits young people in their teens or early twenties (like Professor Evan’s children, for example) and very rarely appears in the skull. The changes of Lennie having Ewing’s were incredibly remote. So when this happened to him it was a total shock for us and completely turned our lives around.
Reading something like this quote, especially taken out of context, was incredibly painful for me and other parents of children who have suffered from cancer, too many of whom are still dying. Lennie is still fighting – we hope he will be a survivor, and I hope Cancer Research will continue to fund research into sarcoma and other rare cancers. I believe that this is a great charity which has saved many lives, but please please could you consider your audience (many of whom will have been affected by cancer) before you decide to publish any more bold, irresponsible and hurtful statements.
ROY January 15, 2013
I would just like to no why he has come out with a comment like that & why you here on the news again that women with breast cancer maybe entitled to a new treatment but only maybe if their is such a treatment they should be treated or is it a case of costing
Jim Woodgett (@jwoodgett) January 15, 2013
As a long time colleague and collaborator who has a huge amount of respect for Gerard Evan, I believe it was irresponsible to use his quote for public consumption for a number of reasons. Firstly, the quote was from a talk given by a CRUK supported researcher to head office (of CRUK). The informal talk appeared to be intended as a confidence booster for the staff (e.g. rah,rah). Secondly, in the cold light of day, the wording was not just optimistic but unqualified. There has been significant progress made in diagnosis and treatment of cancer but, as CRUK is surely well aware, the disease is insidious for the very reasons Evan gave in his talk – powerful selective pressures of variants that are drug resistant that work around our best efforts at control. Thirdly, CRUK has a conflict of interest insofar as the organization must raise funds to support its good work from the public. CRUK needs to respect that same public by being accurate and honest in how it communicates, placing quotes into context and avoiding hyperbole. The many superb cancer researchers supported by CRUK know the immense challenges very well. The idea that no one will die from cancer in the foreseeable future maybe a wonderful goal but is also, unfortunately, unlikely. Campaigning on such rarified expectations as a means to motivate fund-raising is, in my opinion, disingenuous. Is it not enough to state that cancer researchers are working to reduce the burden of cancer in every way possible? Passion cannot substitute for reality. The public is not so naive – assuming it is may well backfire.