Health TED Talks

10 talks to help you better understand cancer

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When you hear the word “cancer,” what do you think about? And how do you know what you think you know? Do you think of cancer as a disease of the old or as something that can affect anyone, as a death sentence or as a surmountable twist of fate? When you picture someone with cancer, who are they and where do they live?

Today is World Cancer Day, an annual campaign organized by the Union for International Cancer Control to raise awareness about cancer-related issues. This year’s theme is “Cancer—Did You Know?” and the goal is to highlight myths about the disease and replace them with facts.

The organization has put forth four major myths: that cancer is just a health issue, that it affects only the elderly and those in rich and developed countries, that it is a death sentence, and that it is fate. The UICC lays out its own counterpoints to these myths here, here, here, and here. The main take-home is that cancer affects people in all parts of the world, and is quickly worsening in less developed nations. All that disease is an incredible economic burden on both individuals and societies, and is particularly acute for women in developing nations who make up the majority of the 750,000 annual deaths from cervical and breast cancer.

But, on a more positive note: advances in medical science mean that people are surviving cancers that were once thought untreatable, and preventative steps — from education on healthy lifestyles to new vaccines for certain cancers — are further reducing cancer-related deaths. The trick will be getting education programs and medical technologies to more people, particularly those in the developing world.

In honor of World Cancer Day, here are 10 TED Talks that explore other aspects of cancer, from prevention to diagnostics to possible treatments.

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Mina Bissell: Experiments that point to a new understanding of cancer
Breast cancer expert Mina Bissell doesn’t understand why, out of the tens of trillions of cells in the human body, cancer researchers focus on single cancerous cells. Why not also consider all the cells around it, or what Bissell calls the “context” and “architecture?” In this 2012 TEDGlobal talk, Bissell shares two key experiments that proved the prevailing wisdom about cancer growth was wrong and outlines her intriguing take on curing cancer.

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David Agus: A new strategy in the war on cancer
With today’s advances in medical technology and genetic research, oncologist David Agus points out that the current approach to cancer identification and treatment is archaic. In this 2009 TEDMED talk, he asks: why define cancer by the body part in which it is found rather than by its own genetic profile? From there, Agus explores the future of cancer diagnoses and treatment.

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Jack Andraka: A promising test for pancreatic cancer … from a teenager
The future of cancer research depends on the bright minds of young researchers. In this amazing talk from TED2013, sixteen-year-old Jack Andraka describes his invention: a cheap, efficient diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer.

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Danny Hillis: Understanding cancer through proteomics
Scientist and inventor Danny Hillis wants to take cancer research beyond genes to the proteins they encode for — in other words, not the ingredients for a body, but what is going on in that body in the moment it is sick. In this 2010 TEDMED talk, Hillis breaks down proteomics, or the form and function of all the proteins in the human body, and what it might mean for cancer research.

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William Li: Can we eat to starve cancer?
Angiogenesis, or the growth of new blood vessels, is vital for a healthy body. When it goes awry, it isn’t good: for example, too little can lead to chronic wounds, and too much can lead to cancer. In this 2010 TED talk, medical doctor William Li explores ways to control the blood supply to a tumor through eating naturally cancer-fighting foods.

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Jay Bradner: Open-source cancer research
What’s remarkable about Jay Bradner’s approach to cancer research isn’t just the discovery chemistry, although it is fascinating. It’s the fact that he’s bringing it to open source. In this 2011 TEDxBoston talk, Dr. Bradner shows how sharing data and information with as broad a group as possible can help solve a real-life cancer puzzle.

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Bill Doyle: Treating cancer with electric fields
The standard toolkit of cancer therapies includes surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Bill Doyle adds to this set of choices, at least for certain types of cancer, by using electric fields. The fields stop the movement of electrically charged proteins in cancerous cells that are necessary for cell division (and, subsequently, cellular multiplication). In this 2011 TEDMED talk, Doyle explains the process and why it may give patients one thing that the traditional tools cannot: better quality of life during treatment.

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Elizabeth Murchison: Fighting a contagious cancer
Cancer doesn’t just affect humans. In this 2011 TEDGlobal talk, geneticist Elizabeth Murchison explains her work on an alarming contagious cancer that is wiping out the Tasmanian Devil in Australia. What does this have to do with human cancers? Studying such cancers in animals could give insight into the rare chance of a contagious cancer in humans.

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Eva Vertes looks to the future of medicine
Microbiology prodigy Eva Vertes was only 19 years old when she spoke at TED2005 about cancer stem cells. In the talk below, she presents research that suggests cancer might be a repair response to damage to stem cells in the lungs, liver, bones, etc. The implication she is testing? “It’s possible, although far-fetched, that in the future we could think of cancer being used as a therapy,” she explains in the talk below.

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Yoav Medan: Ultrasound surgery – healing without cuts
Traditional cancer surgery requires cuts and slices to flesh and bone, which take a lot of time to heal. It’s a painful process. In this 2011 TEDMED talk, Yoav Medan describes a non-invasive approach to surgery using focused ultrasound, which has applications in cancer and several other diseases.



And a TED Book you should definitely check out on this topic …

Controlling Cancer: A Powerful Plan for Taking on the World’s Most Daunting Disease
Could cancer be caused by viruses pushing infected cells to the brink? Paul Ewald, a leading thinker in the field of evolutionary medicine, postulates that this may be the case. In this TED Book, he and co-author Holly Swain Ewald lay out a bold plan for attacking cancer. By attacking the virus, he believes that we could come close to eradicating cancer altogether. (Read our Q&A with Paul.)