Exhibition Explores the Art and Science of Cancer—and the Hope of a Future Without It
The Science Museum in London explores the past and future of the disease, and the resilience of its survivors
Cancer impacts many lives—in 2020, it accounted for almost one in six deaths worldwide. In the United States alone, the American Cancer Society estimates, there will be around 1.9 million people diagnosed with cancer this year.
Given cancer’s ubiquity, you might be surprised to learn that there aren’t many exhibitions discussing the topic. “Cancer Revolution: Science, Innovation and Hope,” which opened at the Science Museum in London on Wednesday, aims to change that.
The free exhibition explores the treatment and understanding of cancer throughout the years, including personal accounts, artworks and over 100 objects—some of which have never been on display before.Created by the Science Museum Group in collaboration with Cancer Research UK, the display aims to highlight the stories of people affected by cancer and those who study and treat it, revealing their resiliency and hope. “Cancer Revolution” also investigates how the disease has been treated over the years, from the discovery of chemotherapy drugs to high-risk surgeries, and explores the important challenges that must still be solved to help current and future patients—and one day, eliminate cancer for good.
Among the artifacts in the show are the first dinosaur bone tumor to be identified and the Radium teletherapy apparatus, which was the first effective, non-surgical cancer treatment. Known colloquially as the radium “bomb,” the tumor-shrinking device was first used by Ernest and Frank Carling at the Westminster Hospital in London in the 1930s.
“Mass radiation at a distance by means of the so-called bomb is not only a useful weapon in the treatment of cancer, but a weapon so far unique in its capabilities and safe in its application,” they wrote in the British Medical Journal in 1934. The treatment was a precursor for today’s radiotherapy, a treatment used by approximately 50 percent of modern cancer patients.The Cytosponge, one of the latest technologies transforming how signs of esophageal cancer is detected, will also be on display. The device consists of a small capsule that’s attached to a string and swallowed. The capsule dissolves in the stomach, revealing a small brush that is then extracted with the string. It’s being celebrated as an alternative to expensive, invasive endoscopies.
In the past, cancer was difficult to diagnose, and often was discovered when it was too late. The exhibition “explores how advances in technology and research are helping to detect and treat the disease earlier and more effectively than before, helping to lessen the impact of cancer treatment on patient’s lives,” Katie Dabin, lead curator of the exhibition and curator of medicine at the Science Museum said in the statement.In a telephone interview with the New York Times’ Alex Marshall, the curator said exhibits about cancer run the risk of feeling “cold and clinical.” To counter that, she wanted to make sure the artifacts included would inspire interest along with comfort, sparking conversation about the hopes and fears that come with the disease. “There’s this perception that cancer is a modern disease, and very uniquely human, and that leads to a lot of people blaming themselves when they’re diagnosed: ‘What have I done?’ But cancer affects all multicellular life,” she told the Times. “It’s a disease of cells and unfortunately when cells divide, on occasion, that process goes wrong.”
The exhibition also includes more personal artifacts, such as the medications Ann-Marie Wilson, a patient diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, takes every month to relieve the side effects of chemotherapy. A wig stand used by cancer patient Sarah Herd and decorated by her daughter to make it “less awkward and scary” is also featured. It’s a testament to the worry, fear and resilience cancer can bring to families and the ways in which caretakers and patients respond.Other than scientific discoveries and patient testimonies, the exhibit also features artwork that aims to represent the emotional and psychological impact of the disease. For instance, Silent Stories, in which artist Katharine Dowson casted the radiotherapy masks used by patients, is accompanied by a soundscape of patients reflecting on the impacts of cancer treatment and radiotherapy.
Aside from science and innovation, hope is infused throughout the tablets, sculptures and tumors on display. According to the National Cancer Institute, there were about 16.9 million cancer survivors in the U.S. as of January 2019. By 2030, that number is projected to increase to 22.2 million.
“So much progress has been made in the way we prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer, but it’s rare that you get the opportunity to view these breakthroughs in such a visual, immersive way,” said Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, in a statement. “As well as reflecting on the incredible advances and innovation in science, the exhibition also gives us the opportunity to celebrate the role that researchers, scientists, patients, clinicians, funders and communities have all played in making that possible.”
“Cancer Revolution: Science, Innovation and Hope” is on view at the Science Museum in London through January 23.