How Far Away is a Cure for Cancer? Too Far

Thursday, Oct. 3, 7:30 pm

Following a series of mid-day VIP tours of UC San Diego’s health, research and arts-related institutions, acclaimed author/journalist Clifton Leaf took the stage for the evening session, in conversation with The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons.


Clifton Leaf

Leaf, a cancer survivor himself when he was a youngster, created something of an uproar in cancer research for his recent best-selling book, “Why We’re Losing the War Against Cancer — And How to Win It.”

Leaf was half-kiddingly introduced by Clemons as “one of the most unliked people in the cancer business. You seem to be a pretty good guy, but you’ve issued a rather strong indictment against the cancer industry.”

Leaf welcomed the charge with a wry smile.

“Well, let’s start with a story where there are no villains. It’s hard to imagine a failure this grand, where there are no villains. If the goal is to collaborate, share data, create open data, the truth is the day-to-day incentives are about keeping secrets.”

“What we have is really a cultural systematic failure,” he said. “We’re a great people, who want to do great people, but we’re stuck with a system that doesn’t work.”

Noting that an estimated 1.7 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer every year, Leaf warned of “a demographic time bomb, more needing cancer care and not having the resources to do enough about it.”

Clemons told Leaf that he couldn’t find anything to be encouraged about in the book, that there wasn’t much about “how to win” the cancer war.

Leaf’s response: “You can’t write a book like this without putting the ‘how to win it’ in the title, but I couldn’t find a way to win it. Basically, my answer is, and it’s totally cowardly, I own up to it.”

What to do differently? “We’ve got to stop doing the things that are dumb and we know they’re dumb. That’s the answer.”

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