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UW doctor: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure to cancer

Vice President Joe Biden lead a panel discussion on "Cancer Moonshot" at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle on March 21. Though it's a courageous undertaking, some in the medical field say it might not be fair to generalize the "cure for cancer." (Genna Martin/ via AP)

Seattle’s Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center became Vice President Joe Biden’s latest stop Monday on his “moonshot” tour to cure cancer. But some scientists say that using a slogan like “cure cancer” is misguided.

When asked about this commonly-used phrase, Dr. Mary-Claire King of the University of Washington said it’s not so simple.

Related: Biden tours Seattle cancer center, sees more cooperation

“When we think of curing cancer, we need to think in terms of there being many cancers and many cures,” King said. “It’s not one size fits all. It’s not one dress fits all. It’s absolutely precision-fit of the dress to the patient.”

King was one of the several panelists who joined Biden Monday. She’s been immersed in the cancer fight for 40 years and was the first to show that breast cancer is inherited in some families.

King says she would feel bad if the scientific community led the public to believe that there could be one cure.

“It’s patronizing to people to oversimplify. It leads to unrealistic expectations,” she said. “It leads to people being understandably frustrated and unhappy. We need to be honest with people to say that every cancer is different and so there are many cures and we need to develop them one by one, cancer by cancer.”

How do we do that? King says it’s a continuing challenge.

“Each cancer is its own vicious genetic set of mutations and we have ways now to attack those specific lesions much more effectively than even a few years ago,” she said. “We’re getting better and better at it. The challenge is that every cancer is different and that cancers develop even more mutations when we successfully attack the first ones.”

No matter the language the president and Vice President use, or the slogan-style approach towards the cancer fight, Dr. King says it’s marvelous to see the White House put this attention into fighting cancers.

“It’s inspiring,” she said. And it sends the right message. “We’re all in this together. We’re all here for the same reason.”

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