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12 Incredible TED Talks on Cancer

By Leslie

Cancer terrifies and traumatizes. Despite hearing about it constantly, not everyone grasps the hauntingly human face of its ravages until it (or even the threat of it) slithers up and strikes them or someone they love. Although medicine continues to make progress in prevention, detection and treatment, many more victories are needed if it hopes to fully eradicate the disease. TED, unsurprisingly, offers an excellent forum for healthcare professionals, patients and survivors alike to discuss cancer’s influence. Whether their discussions revolve around the clinical or the personal, they all compellingly reflect how the disease hurts and — in some cases — even actually heals.

  1. William Li: Can we eat to starve cancer?: Filmed in February 2010, this 20-minute TED Talk proposes some incredibly interesting strategies for cancer prevention. Angiogenesis Foundation head William Li highlights the surprising relationship between fewer blood vessels and many killer chronic diseases — including cancer. Diet, of course, plays an integral role in staving off the onset of cancer, diabetes, heart conditions and more, and this lecture suggests grapes (and grape products such as wine), teas, tomatoes and other nutritious eats as almost medically miraculous eats.

  2. Ananda Shankar Jayant fights cancer with dance: In this evocative, emotional performance, Ananda Shankar Jayant funnels all of her anxiety and fear over a breast cancer diagnosis into some hauntingly beautiful movement. A lauded practitioner of traditional Indian dance, she presents here a metaphor for the battle, focusing on mother goddess Durga and adding a distinctly spiritual element. For Jayant, turning her attentions towards creation allowed her physical, emotional and mental respite from something so very destructive.

  3. Alan Russell on regenerating our bodies: Regenerative medicine might very well hold the key to wiping out cancer and other debilitating, chronic conditions. Funding, unfortunately, remains elusive, but the research accumulated thus far holds considerable progress — which surgeon and chemical engineer Alan Russell stunningly relays here. He believes stem cells instructed to grow into tissues (maybe even organs) will make all the difference in healing bodies ravaged by any number of horrific diseases.

  4. Stacey Kramer: The best gift I ever survived: Stacey Kramer’s story only lasts about 3 minutes, but what she has to offer completely transcends limited speaking space. For her, a brain tumor ended up what she considers among the greatest things to ever pop into her life. She opens her heart to TED audiences and points out some of the little blessings that came unexpectedly packaged with the traumatic news — including flowers, gourmet meals, vacation time and (of course) more meaningful time with loved ones.

  5. David Agus: A new strategy in the war on cancer: This oncologist devotes his TED time to challenging the usual methods of cancer treatment, which tend to emphasize symptoms and cells rather than the overarching issues. As "a disease of the aged," there exists numerous risk factors that David Agus argues need controlling rather than understanding — and medicine has spent far more time and resources on the latter. He believes rethinking the rhetoric and approach of healthcare will result in a higher remission and curative rate.

  6. Eva Vertes looks to the future of medicine: Cancer and Alzheimer’s particularly pique Eva Vertes’ professional and personal interest, and her bright lecture reflects both facets well. Although she admits the idea seems "very farfetched," part of her wonders if the body’s method of attacking itself may someday be replicated in order to eliminate degenerative cells. Vertes also posits that working different tissues might also help combat certain ailments — the trick is to discover how exactly to accomplish this.

  7. Dean Ornish on the world’s killer diet: Most of the TED Talk revolves around cardiovascular disease, which actually kills more humans worldwide than cancer, AIDS and diabetes. However, Dean Ornish still talks prostate cancer and how researching its prevention and cure has led to improved heart disease treatment. In both instances, significant lifestyle and dietary changes meant a significantly decreased risk — a "70 percent regression in tumor growth" when it came to the cancer, in fact.

  8. Randy Pausch: Really achieving your childhood dreams: After a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Randy Pausch delivered his "Last Lecture" with the hope of inspiring more than just the student body. Relayed through TED, he offers up a stirring, poignant and frequently pitch-black comedic motivational speech about setting and accomplishing goals. Deeply personal, Pausch illustrates how such suffering serves as one of the most provocative, inspiring lessons of all.

  9. Deborah Rhodes: A tool that finds 3x more breast tumors, and why it’s not available to you: Deborah Rhodes heads up Mayo Clinic’s Executive Health Program and is considered amongst the world’s foremost breast cancer experts — as evidenced in her role in developing an amazing new mammography machine. Along with a group of physicists, she created a method detecting tumors with triple the accuracy of old methods. Thanks to a complex series of economic and political roadblocks, an absolutely amazing, game-changing medical wonder is unavailable for mainstream usage.

  10. Mark Roth: Suspended animation is within our grasp: Admittedly, Mark Roth’s TED Talk isn’t really about cancer, but the disease does form the bulk of his research — eventually inspiring him to famously experiment with suspended animation. In association with others at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he developed a startling method of depriving a zebrafish embryo of oxygen and keeping it alive for hours. Obviously, it requires more testing and sophistication, but the positive implications for trauma and chronic patients is undeniable.

  11. Bruce Feiler: The council of dads: Like many patients afflicted with cancer, Bruce Feiler considered it a springboard to inter- and intrapersonal reflection. The Council of Dads resulted from anxiety over what would happen to his wife and twin daughters, reflecting how he pulled together 6 of his fellow fathers as guides. Both the book and the burgeoning movement bring together families and friends to ensure children losing a parent to cancer still grow up happy, healthy and strong.

  12. Julia Sweeney on letting go of God: Saturday Night Live veteran Julia Sweeney’s one-woman performance piece Letting Go of God — the first 15 minutes of which she performed at TED — chronicles her transition from Catholicism to atheism. While not directly about cancer, her harrowing experience with the disease did begin unraveling her faith, as she poignantly covers in God Said "Ha!". Rarely does society peer into stories of sloughing off religion after a tragic life change, so Sweeney’s point of view is certainly a fascinating one.

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