Winning the battle with cancer

Angelina Jolie (Getty)
Angelina Jolie (Getty)

In the mid-1990s in a lab in the United States, Dr Johnathan Lancaster saw a "squiggly line" on an X-ray film that would change his life, and the lives of countless others.

After years of searching, his team had just discovered what we now call the BRCA gene. It's the same gene Angelina Jolie realised she had, resulting in her decision to under a complete mastectomy.

"We recognised 'wow, this is a moment that's going to change history' - and it truly has."

Two decades later, the chief medical officer at Salt Lake City's Myriad Genetics says we're getting ever closer to putting cancer in its place.

"We've started to really understand why some individuals develop cancer," he told Paul Henry on Friday.

"We've started to be able to identify individuals who may benefit from risk-reducing surgeries that could prevent cancer. We can keep a much closer eye on patients who are carrying these genes with additional breast imaging, MRI, mammography, pelvic ultrasounds."

Dr Lancaster is in this part of the world because he spoke at the APAC Forum in Sydney earlier this week, which hosted 1500 health professionals from the world.

His keynote speech focused on getting doctors to adopt the latest and greatest tools science has to offer medicine. He says it's important those who choose where the funding goes - in New Zealand's case, that's largely the Government and agencies like Pharmac - understand what's available.

"A decade or two or five from now we will look back and say, 'Wow, isn't it amazing that back then we were paying people to do things in healthcare irrespective of how effective it was, or the quality of what they were doing.' 

"Hopefully we will be in a space where doctors,  healthcare systems and  industries involved in healthcare will be rewarded based  the quality of the product they deliver - whether it is the quality of the surgery they do, the care they deliver, the quality of the drug, device, or test they create. Value is the quality per dollar spent."

Only then will we be able to consider developing cancer as minor an inconvenience as catching a cold.

"I think it's important to know cancer is not one disease - cancer is many hundreds of diseases, and day-to-day we are increasing our ability to control and cure many of those cancers," says Dr Lancaster.

"Hopefully we'll get to the day we can diagnose cancers at the very earliest stage and cure them with minimally invasive therapies."