May 13, 2022

How we can defeat cancer

This piece originally appeared in STAT

Progress is both unpredictably fast and troublingly slow. This is a great paradox of human existence. How we choose to spend our limited time and where we choose to concentrate our efforts have great consequence.

In the U.S., cancer is the number one cause of death for people under 85 years old.1 It inflicts incalculable human suffering and costs our country hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

Conquering cancer — or, at the very least, turning it into a manageable disease — is an audacious goal. Yet, if we invest today, it is something our children and grandchildren will live to see.

In the past few decades, advances in biotechnology have mapped the human genome, transformed sophisticated DNA analysis into a common laboratory practice, developed cutting-edge personalized medicines, and created new vaccines to respond in record time to a global pandemic.

Improving cancer survival will require applying these capabilities to create new ways to detect the disease earlier when it can be more effectively treated.

We need not look far into the past for proof early detection and intervention works. In the second half of the 20th century, age-adjusted death rates from heart disease decreased 56% and stroke rates decreased by 70%. Both continued falling in the opening decades of the 2000s thanks to public health campaigns and medical advancements, including statins and high blood pressure treatments.2

Cancer mortality improvements lag because we have not invested at a similar scale in early intervention.

Today, health care only has screening methods for about 30% of cancers.3 A routine, affordable screening test for pancreatic, ovarian or kidney cancers? They don’t exist. As a result, the vast majority of cancers are detected only after symptoms appear, such as pain, a lump, or abnormal bleeding. That’s often too late.

We must make earlier cancer detection a routine part of medical care.

The team at Exact Sciences is working to move beyond single organ screening, or backtracking from symptoms to diagnose cancer, to proactively screening for multiple cancers with a single blood draw.

The power of a blood-based test is its simplicity and potential effectiveness. Multi-cancer early detection tests hold the promise to close the screening gap — to get at many of those 70% of cancers for which today we do not have routine screenings. This is a critical component to taking down cancer, but not the sole solution.

Eradicating cancer requires a comprehensive suite of tests and treatments for patients all along the way — before, during and after a diagnosis. From the testing perspective, we must create and advance:

  • Hereditary cancer assessments to give individuals the power to know their personal risk for cancer;
  • Screening tests for more types of cancer so they can be detected earlier, when they are more treatable;
  • Therapy guidance tests to help patients and health care providers select the right course of treatment for their specific disease and to avoid over-and under-treatment;
  • Minimal residual disease tests to assess whether treatment has totally eliminated the cancer and monitor potential recurrence on a personalized, cancer-by-cancer basis.

At Exact Sciences, we are actively working to put these pieces together. We are not the only ones. We welcome collaboration and the contributions of others from government, health care, academia, and advocacy. It will take more people and organizations getting involved in this cancer “moonshot,” not fewer, to ensure the best ideas are combined to yield new, extraordinary results, at population scale.

We — as a global society — have world-class facilities, physicians, and scientists with limitless potential. Now is the time to double-down on our efforts to defeat cancer, improve the lives of everyone, and create entirely new ways to advance human health.

This work will not be easy. Together, we can do this.

For more information about innovations and options in earlier cancer detection, please visit