For VICE‘s Shane Smith, the VICE Special Report: Killing Cancer, is personal. He’s watched his mother fight breast cancer and his stepmother die from cancer. Anyone whose life has been affected by cancer will understand where he’s coming from immediately — the way that the sword of Damocles descends at the first diagnosis, telling the patient just what will kill them in the future.
Killing Cancer is a 40-minute documentary that premieres tonight (February 27) on HBO, a week before the debut of VICE Season 3, and delves into some of the most exciting current research into how cancer might be controlled — or maybe even cured. Smith takes us from Ottawa to the Mayo Clinic to Houston, Texas to look at three separate experimental trials (that all seem to be in the very early stages — phase 1 or 2‚ which come long before phase 3 and FDA approval).
What’s fascinating about these trials is that a new strain of thinking around cancer involves the idea of using other viruses that have killed us en masse (measles, smallpox, HIV) to kill the cancer cells growing in the afflicted person’s body. It’s a clearly demarcated battle, where scientists are able to isolate and protect the cancer patient’s healthy cells while sending the destructive and disruptive virus into their body in order to mess with the cancer cells.
“It could lead to a cure in our lifetime,” an Ottawa doctor says to Smith. For anyone who’s been touched by cancer or even just scared of the genetic possibility of it, this prospect is utterly thrilling. And VICE‘s study is only the tip of the iceberg for some of this research — cancer clinics like Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Dana Farber aren’t even featured, and they’ve been working on trials like this as well.
Smith goes to Minnesota to talk to Stacy Erholtz, a woman whose multiple myeloma is currently in remission thanks to the experimental trial that sent the measles virus after her cancer. It’s an amazing story, and we see the hope and bravery of current myeloma patients receiving the same treatment as Stacy.
Where the special really tugs at your heartstrings, however, is in the story of the successful treatment of Emma Whitehead, a young girl who nearly died from leukemia when she was six years old, before doctors made the radical decision to use HIV to reprogram her T cells. Now, her cancer is in remission. They’ve done further treatments on young cancer patients who have also responded well, and it may be a breakthrough that shows that it’s fair to hope for a cure.
It wouldn’t be a VICE special with some edginess, though; Killing Caner takes you right into the operating rooms for cancer patients’ head surgeries, complete with the squishy, squirmy sounds of real-life procedures. I had to watch the show between my fingers for a bit, but I may be more squeamish than the average VICE fan (or HBO viewer).
The information on trials like this is readily available in newspapers and via other media outlets, but the VICE team does a good job of showcasing the most exciting breakthroughs in the fight against cancer. The special is downright earnest, which is weird coming from VICE, but in this case Smith’s everyman quality makes something that could be wonky into a human story of people working to eradicate a random and cruel disease. An optimistic summary of where we are in the fight against cancer and where we’re going with this new research, Killing Cancer shines a little light on a possible future where a cancer diagnosis may never be a death sentence.