Looking for the missing pieces in the cancer puzzle

Houda Boulahbel
9 min readJul 27, 2023

This article was inspired by some exceptional people I met while exploring multiple perspectives on this question: Why is cancer still such a challenging disease despite tremendous international efforts to treat it?

I previously wrote about the topic, and invited readers to contribute their perspectives. I gratefully received close to 100 responses from people who had experienced cancer themselves, or who had cared for loved ones with the disease. Many told me about doctor-patient communication, about rejecting chemotherapy, and about the need to treat the whole patient not just their tumours. Some told me about the huge effort it takes to navigate cancer treatment within their health system, and their disillusionment with Western medicine. Others bemoaned the lack of accessible and up-to-date clinical trial information. Those were all insightful discussions that were shared with so much generosity and emotion, I feel really privileged to have heard and read them, and will give them justice in later blogs.

Meeting the cancer hackers

This article was the result of meeting the innovators. The patients and carers who refuse to sit quietly and comply with the current treatment paradigms. Those who thought carefully about the standard of care, its limitations and the reasons behind them. Those who did their own research, who had their tumours’ genome, proteome and RNA analysed, and then discussed the data with oncology experts. Those who consulted other patients in a similar situation, and found insights that their oncologists had missed. They are patients at the forefront of scientific research, and they sent me, the retired cancer researcher back to my dusty biology books to revisit principles that I always took for granted.

Complex problem, simple solutions

One theme that emerged was about making personalised medicine achievable for every patient. As one person articulated it:

Every person is different, every tumour is different. Even my own tumours change with time, and after they have been treated with a drug. What worked before will stop working at some point…

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Houda Boulahbel

Systems thinking consultant. Ex-cancer research scientist. Curious about the world. Love science and design.