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.