A NHS trial hopes to be able to detect 50 types of cancer before symptoms appear.
Cancer is a horrible - and horribly common - disease. One in two Brits will be diagnosed with it in their lifetime, and it was responsible for over a quarter of all UK deaths in 2019. The costs associated with cancer are varied and huge. And each of these costs have a variety of components, affecting the wellbeing of individuals, societies, governments and economies.
Take paid work as an example. When a person falls ill, the quality and quantity of the work they do usually decreases. They may have to take extensive time off, or even drop out of the workforce all together. This often translates to a large hit to the ill individual’s finances and career. They are more likely to be passed over for promotion or other work opportunities. They may even be laid off.
At the same time as an individual is experiencing these economic costs, businesses, employers and customers are facing the consequences of no longer having access to the skills and labour of the person who has fallen ill. This hits bottom lines and in some cases deprives the world of particularly unique or valuable ideas and talents. Meanwhile, governments are getting less income tax from the ill worker and at the same time increasing revenue spending in order to fund the associated healthcare and welfare costs.
Plus, all these effects may be multiplied, because when someone falls seriously ill it’s not uncommon for their loved ones to also cut back on paid work, in order to care for the patient, or take on more of the ill person's former responsibilities such as childcare, or even just because the stress of the situation is taking a toll on their health and wellbeing too.
These impacts on paid work are just a sample of the myriad costs of cancer. Societies therefore have strong incentives to try and reduce the number of cancer cases. There are a few ways this can be done. One is better treatment. Another is a focus on prevention by decreasing people’s exposure to known carcinogens. Regulations on cigarettes, including whacking large taxes on them to make them unappealingly expensive, is an example of this. So are attempts to clean up air pollution in cities.
Shifting people and societies away from choices that increase their cancer risk can be tricky though, not least because such shifts can come with their own costs. For example, banning alcohol would decrease cancer cases, but be considered by many to be a restriction on their wellbeing and/or personal autonomy. Shutting down factories means less cancer-causing particles in the air, but also fewer jobs and fewer goods on the shelves.
However, such trade-offs aren’t so much of a problem with the third way of reducing the cancer burden: earlier detection of the disease. Cancer takes hold by replicating mutated cells and spreading throughout the body. The sooner it can be discovered, therefore, the less of it there is to remove and the more likely it is that the patient can recover quickly and completely. So the news that it might be possible to detect cancer at its very earliest stages - before even any symptoms appear - is being seen by many to be a complete gamechanger.
There are some concerns about the method. Blood testing for disease has been overhyped before (remember the Theranos drama?). Even if it works, the fact that GRAIL’s parent company currently has something of a monopoly over the process is leading to speculation that it could keep the technology away from other researchers in order to maximise its own profitability. Still, a new technology that has the potential to significantly improve the wellbeing of half the population is exciting news to many.
…So where next? Not only do economic ideas shape the institutions and communities we live in, they also influence our own ideas of personal success – be it earning well, achieving a ‘Dr.’ or ‘CEO’ at the front of our label, or living a sustainable life. But what with the speed at which technology is transforming our economies, we can barely predict what ‘s in store for our economies and where we’ll fit in…