On March 24, the FDA approved a drug called ipilimumab for the treatment of late stage melanoma. The approval follows the publication of a paper last June that showed ipilimumab to be the first drug ever to provide a statistically significant survival advantage for advanced melanoma patients. By stimulating the immune system, “ipi” (as many cancer patients and doctors refer to it) doubles survival rates while typically causing only a fraction of the side effects of traditional chemotherapy. In short, it’s a much needed breakthrough in the treatment of an extremely deadly disease.
For me, the timing couldn’t have been better. The paper announcing ipilimumab’s success was published less than a month before my melanoma relapsed last July, and by September I was enrolled in a clinical trial that provided me with doses of the drug. I have a difficult time expressing how lucky I am. The development of this life-saving breakthrough started around the time I entered kindergarten and continued over a decade an a half. During all but the last few months of this period, I had no idea that the research would affect me so directly and so soon.
Whether or not you realize it, you are in the position that I was in a decade ago. According to the statistics, more than a third of the people who read this article will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetimes. Even if you are lucky enough to avoid this yourself, it’s a virtual certainty that at some point someone you love — be it your spouse, your parents or your best friend — will be afflicted by this horrific disease.
For most of you, that day is still mercifully distant in the future. But when that moment inevitably comes, the best treatment options will be based on the research that was started decades earlier. Discovering potential mechanisms for treating cancer takes years of research and huge amounts of funding. Even after that research is complete, it generally takes more than a decade before the new treatment is available to patients. The fact that you aren’t dealing with cancer yet is not an excuse for apathy. Instead, it means that if you support research today, there’s still time for it to lead to a treatment by the time you need it.
Fortunately, there are many good ways to support cancer research. The most immediate example is the Relay for Life that is taking place this weekend. The funds raised through this event go to the American Cancer Society, which spends about $130 million a year on cancer research. Beyond that, a personal favorite of mine is the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah which has been on the cutting edge of genetic research into the causes of cancer. (Indeed, they discovered the BRCA-2 gene that seems to have contributed to me developing melanoma.) I strongly urge you to make a donation to once of these two organizations.
In addition to making a donation now, seize any other opportunity you get to help eradicate cancer. The most direct way would be to do research or go into medicine yourself, and some of you will do just that. But even if your career interests lie elsewhere, consider making cancer research a priority. The Huntsman Cancer Institute is named after Jon Huntsman Sr., who made billions of dollars in business before giving more than $300 million to cancer research. One way or another, though, don’t wait to act. Take action against cancer now while it has so much potential to make a difference.
Max Rosett was a sophomore in Calhoun College before he withdrew from Yale last summer due to his cancer diagnosis.