Are we too obsessed with curing cancer?

Posted on September 7, 2016

(Last Updated On: September 7, 2016)

Craig Venter is a stapled name in the genetics world. His newest company aims to increase healthy ageing.

“We have MRI imaging of the brain and body which allows us to detect any tumour larger than two millimetres. We take 4D echocardiograms, to create a movie of your heart and measure every parameter in it. We also analyse 2,400 chemicals in the bloodstream to find correlations between these chemicals and the bacteria that create them.”


Add to this genome sequencing, a team of machine learning experts to make sense of all the data, and we have ourselves a $25,000 service.

Inevitably, when it comes to this type of stuff we jump to curing cancer as the application. Mistakenly, we often jump to that as a means of curing death. It’s striking to see Venter and an employee of his repeatedly mention this then:

“If you cured cancer, you only gain about three and a half years of life expectancy.”

Venter is boys with Larry Page, who started Google. Page has echoed this number. I’m not sure what their exact source is, it might be their own data, but here is an article from 1976 (!) discussing how average life expectancy would only increase 2.5 years if cancer were cured. Furthermore, I think we all get most cancers happen in older people. If they don’t die of that, they’re going to die of something else not long after. In the elderly, it’s not that one thing is breaking down while everything else is humming along. It’s more one thing is really breaking down with a lot of other things not far behind.

Anyways, these are smart people who know genetics and statistics, and have a ton of money. Presumably, this is why Page decided to start a Google side project aimed at curing aging, not cancer or a specific disease.

-> Or it’s all yet another way to get more information about us.

Employee “I mean, how much more do you want to know?”

Larry “Until we know what color their urine is, then we don’t know enough. And once we know the color, I want to know the contents. Once I know all the urine, then I want the poop. Then I want to know their facial expression during defecation. Do you see where I’m going?”

Employee “Yes! I’ll get the team working on an algorithm to narrow the cause of the facial expression. We’ll use a motion sensor to correlate vibrations in their phone with facial movement, telling people whether that was a good or bad dropping. My hunch on the bad ones is the seat or the stool, so I’ll start looking for advertising for more comfortable toilet seats and see what laxative companies are willing to partner.”

Larry “Don’t forget the urine. Change the world!”

With all the above, it seems safe to say ~3 years is correct.

Continuing the three and half years quote (bolding mine),

“It takes seven years for the risk of everything that is unpleasant about ageing to double. If we could delay ageing itself by just seven years, then your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s would be reduced by 50 per cent throughout the remainder of your life.”

Interesting…since we already have something which can do this:

“Men, women, normal weight and overweight people – all benefit from exercise in terms of longevity according to the study. However, it also indicated that the best results were obtained by those with normal weight who exercise. These people added 7.2 years to their life expectancy compared to people with a BMI of 35 or more (normal BMI ranges between 18.5 and 24.9) who undertook no exercise in their free time.”


The average gain in life expectancy, like many numbers, jumps around for exercise, but it’s typically ~5 years.

  • Curing physical inactivty could increase life expectancy by five years. Cure obesity and we bump this number to 7.2 years.
  • Cure cancer and we increase life expectancy by 3.5 years.
    • Meaning good eating and exercise can be 100% more effective
  • Cure physical inactivity and we also decrease likelihood of 13 different cancers, minimum. (More about exercise and cancer.)
  • Curing cancer, at least in Venter’s company format, costs a minimum of $25,000 just to assess the person. We’re not even talking about cost of treatment yet.
  • Curing inactivity, at least on an individual scale, can often cost $0. It costs nothing e.g. to walk more. If we’re looking at hiring the most expensive form of this cure, a personal trainer, we’re only talking a small car payment per month. ~$2,500 per year, depending on the trainer and location.
    • If you eat less, you’ll get some of that money back. You’ll get more of it back as your health and healthcare bills improve too.
  • We don’t know how to cure cancer. We know how to be more active.
    • In a way, that’s crazy. We have what would be the most expensive, mind boggling drug of all time, in our possession. “Take this pill everyday and you’ll live five to seven years longer.” Yet the majority of us don’t use it!

Is our focus -NIH funding, energy, time, charitable giving, brain power, new T-shirts, view of what shortens our lifespan- proportionate to the results?

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