I've been spending a lot of time recently in the bone marrow transplant clinic. Fortunately, it's not because I have leukemia- I'm on the donor end of things. I signed up for the National Marrow Donor Program back when I was in college, and I came up for a match for someone that I've never met. Fortunately, it's being done with a non-invasive procedure, so my own recovery should be quite quick. No pelvis-drilling surgery for me!
This did put me to thinking, though, about how far we've come in the treatment of cancer. I have a wonderful "Atoms for Peace" propaganda film made in the Soviet Union in 1955 that contains great footage of early Soviet efforts to treat cancer with nuclear technology. I'm planning on uploading it, but I don't have the software to convert the file into something YouTube will accept. On one hand, the "War on Cancer" has been a huge disappointment. Futurists in the 1960s tended to believe that the scourge of cancer would be eradicated by now, and this was even declared an official goal in 1971. This ambitious aim has obviously eluded researchers. But it overshadows the enormous progress that has been made in cancer treatment.
Take the leukemia patients in the marrow transplant clinic. Before WWII, leukemia was a death sentence; no workable treatment existed. Studies of the radiation injuries resulting from the atomic bombings in Japan led researchers to study full-body radiation therapy as a potential cure. Of course, this was of no use without workable marrow transplants. It took decades of research to transform this procedure into a safe, effective treatment. Today, many forms of leukemia are quite treatable- a huge improvement over the old days.
Indeed, we need to do more to remind people of the countless lives that have been saved by nuclear technology. For every overblown "disaster" like Three Mile Island, there are thousands upon thousands of people whom the friendly atom has saved from an early grave. Despite the potential of nuclear power, medicine is the sphere where nuclear technology that has done the most good for mankind. We may not have "cured cancer," but we can cure some cancers- and in that sense, one of the dreams of the Atomic Age has come to pass.