Dialog Box

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19
Jul
2019

Aiming for the stars in brain cancer research


In 2017, Cure Brain Cancer Foundation helped launch the Australian Brain Cancer Mission – a $124 million, government-backed plan to double brain cancer survival in ten years. Like the mission to go to the moon, many thought it was impossible… until it happened. 

By Dustin Perry, Head of Government Engagement 
Cure Brain Cancer Foundation 

 

“I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” – US President John F. Kennedy: May 25th 1961.

In the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s bold announcement that man would go to the moon by the end of the decade, many were sceptical. 

Few thought it could be achieved at all, let alone by the end of the 1960s.

Some of his most ardent sceptics were intelligent and influential thinkers, but they simply couldn’t comprehend that progress rarely occurs in a linear fashion.

They should’ve known better. 

There’s almost always a tipping point on the road to progress – a moment when new knowledge rapidly and exponentially increases the rate of advancement, changing the world for the better. It’s the moment when the impossible becomes the possible, and true potential and hope is realised.

On the 20th of July 1969 a team of American astronauts landed on the moon, and about six hours later, Neil Armstrong famously became the first man to walk on it, surpassing the bold target his president set just over eight years earlier.

This historic landing forever changed the notion of what was reasonable to aim for, instantly making ‘shooting for the stars’ much more than a metaphor.

As we arrive at the fifty-year anniversary of this milestone for mankind, we, the brain cancer community, find ourselves reflecting on similar ambition.

Seven years before he walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong lost his two-year-old daughter, Karen, to brain cancer. Fifty-two years later, I too lost my daughter, Chloe, to this disease. Although separated by more than five decades, our two stories are tragically similar. The treatments available to my daughter were virtually the same as those offered to Armstrong’s daughter all those years before. And while survival rates for many types of cancer had dramatically improved since the 1960s, the prognosis given to Chloe was virtually the same given to Armstrong’s daughter. Unbelievably, survival rates for brain cancer haven’t improved much since the ‘60s, and barely improved at all since the ‘80s. It wasn’t good enough then, and it’s simply unacceptable now.

I honestly thought there must be a mistake. How could the rate of progress be so slow? How could survival not improve in more than 30 years? I thought the Government just didn't know about this, and as soon as they did, it would be fixed. I made it my personal mission to make sure they did know about it, meeting face-to-face with then Prime Minister Turnbull and Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt to get a fairer share of focus and funding for brain cancer. 

 
Dustin with former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Health Greg Hunt MP in 2017. 

On the 29th of October 2017, I stood beside Greg Hunt as he launched the Australian Brain Cancer Mission (ABCM). He announced the mission’s bold target: “… to double survival rates over the next ten years and improve the quality of life of people with brain cancer in Australia.”

A lot of planning went into the development the ABCM, including countless meetings and many hours in consultation with local and global experts across various disciplines. Finally, these minds came together for a historic Brain Cancer Research Roundtable in August 2017, which led to the development of this mission and its bold target.

The specific goal to double survival rates over the ten-year duration of the project caused quite a bit of controversy, which really surprised me at the time. There were some people around the table that did not like the idea. The added pressure of a target like this, which the Australian people could measure them against, made them uneasy. Again, I’m talking about some very intelligent and influential thinkers.

They should’ve known better.

I’m not saying we will definitely succeed, but what we will do is try. We have to. We cannot allow the cruel survival rates of brain cancer to stay at the level they have been at for the last thirty-plus years.  We just can’t. I can’t. We owe it to those living with brain cancer, and the many more this awful disease has already claimed, like my daughter Chloe and Neil Armstrong’s daughter Karen.

The thing about aiming high, even if you’re one of the people that consider it to be unrealistically high, is that if we fail, we will fail above the success of those who aimed low. 

That’s why I pushed so hard for the Government to adopt this target. We need to pull together as a nation to improve this situation for people suffering from brain cancer. Once all of the key stakeholders have committed to it – and I mean really committed to it, not just doing enough to say that an effort has been made, but doing absolutely everything possible - then we will make significant progress. In my new role as Head of Government Engagement at Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, I’m committed to keeping these stakeholders accountable to the brain cancer community.

The day before any meaningful breakthrough becomes a breakthrough, it’s just a crazy idea. If it starts as anything less, it can only ever become an incremental improvement.  We cannot settle for incremental; we need significant improvement and we need it fast.

Just like John F. Kennedy in 1961, we are shooting for the stars, for doubling survival rates; because if something means enough to you, you just have to do it, despite the doubters, and no matter what the odds. 

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