Imagine there’s no cancer…

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 15.17.15.pngActually, it was quite hard to do. The Royal College of Surgeons asked me to take the premise ‘what if we cured cancer?’, talk to some experts and theorise about how the world might look different.

Cancer is a real bogeyman disease. It’s what lurks behind many of those ‘it’s probably nothing but I thought I’d just check’ visits to the doctor. It’s so common that few of us will not know a relative or friend who has been affected. And until recent decades, it was usually a death sentence. Even the rash of well-loved public figures who have died from cancer in recent months – David Bowie, Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood – increase fear of the Big C.

Yet what a difference those decades have made. Some cancers, such as testicular cancer and childhood lymphomas, have a 10 year survival rate of 90% or above. I spoke to Professor Jane Maher, of Macmillan Cancer Research, who told me about the ‘miracle’ of working on the wards when cisplatin was introduced for testicular cancer – and suddenly young men who would have died were going home to live long, healthy lives.

In truth, we’re most unlikely to see one single cure for cancer. It’s a hugely diverse disease, better viewed as a family of illnesses than a single entity. Scientists are beavering away at dozens of research centres, opening up many different  fronts in the fight against the disease in all its myriad manifestations. And we’re learning more all the time about the causes, and how many of them are avoidable. (Smoking, alcohol, obesity – we’re looking at you).

But how much impact does cancer have overall? If we cure cancer, does that mean we’ll live longer, healthier lives? What would it do to life expectancy, and would we become a nation of centenarians, squandering our pensions on gin and cigarettes without fear for the consequences?

The most fascinating part of my research for this feature was the discovery that it might not make as much difference as you’d think. Cancer is a disease of older people, by and large. The risk factors that lead to cancer also lead to the other big killers, like heart disease and stroke. At a best guess, a universal cure for cancer might add two to five years to the UK’s average life expectancy. As Paul Lambert, professor of biostatics at the University of Leicester told me, curing cancer gives you ‘the opportunity to die of something else.’


Anna Sayburn, What If We Cured Cancer. RCS Bulletin 98, 5, May 2016, pp. 190-193DOI:


  1. Brilliantly written and very interesting

  2. A very interesting question with no obvious answer. As you say we will all of something. Would ‘beating cancer’ mean that we would live for a few extra years? What if significant proportion of these years were affected by dementia? Would we have gained as much as we hoped?

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