As a disease, cancer is something that affects around half of the population and yet it’s also relatively rare, and the Science Museum’s newest exhibition seeks to explain this conundrum.
Filled with a wide range of objects from the medical science to the human stories, it’s a large exhibition that’s both aiming to explain but also to reassure.
To answer the oddity about seemingly affecting a lot of people while being rare is because the average human contains around 37 trillion cells, and it doesn’t need many of them to go wrong to form a cancer, so the body is actually quite good at mopping up cancers in their early days. That’s why in any one individual, it’s very rare. It’s when the body misses a small cancer that then gets a decent foothold that the body then needs the power of science to get rid of it. Unfortunately, that’s a rather hard thing to do, and that’s what the exhibition is about – how science kills cancer.
Just as cancers can be considered to be rare, so are exhibitions about them, because what do you actually show? So this is a mix of an exhibition that reflects how life-changing a cancer diagnosis can be. From personal stories to the medical pills and instruments needed to drive out the dreaded lumps. Just as the surgeon cutting out the cancer leaves scars on the body, the post-operative medications have such side effects as to often leave deeper scars in the mind. Cancer is a battle that even people who have had surgery in the past can be surprised at how emotional it can be.
It’s getting better though, and that’s partly why this exhibition was created, with support from Cancer Research UK, to show how cancer treatments are getting better every year. It’s here to offer a positive message about a disease most of us fear, so, the exhibition opens with a corridor of hope, a long line of people talking about surviving cancer.
Then it leaps into something totally unexpected, cancers of plants and dinosaurs, including the first-ever proven cancer preserved in a dinosaur bone.
A lot of the displays look at recent developments in treatments, so there are machines and diagnostic devices that add some degree of physical gadgets to an exhibition which would otherwise be mainly large piles of pills and display screens. One room has large images of the researchers printed onto glass, so it can be a bit disconcerting to turn around to find someone standing right next to you, only to then realise it’s a life-size photo.
A collection of glowing glass heads turns out to be an artist taking casts of people receiving treatment for neck and throat cancer, and one of Luke Jerram’s glass models of the Papillomavirus almost looks beautiful for something that’s trying to kill us.
For me personally, one of the most fascinating items to see isn’t even a medical treatment, it’s a certificate of payment for just 0.2 grams of radium bought in 1913 by a Manchester Hospital. At the time, radium was one of the most expensive materials in the world because of its scarcity, but critical to early treatments, so here’s a grand certificate for a microscopic sample.
As the exhibition warns, in a section on getting tested early, nearly half of cancers are found when they are already in a late stage that’s harder to treat, so a lot of research is going into detecting cancers earlier, either through specific tests or by looking at how a routine blood sample can be tested for signs that there’s cancer in the body somewhere. If they know that, then people can be given in-depth tests long before the cancer is even evident.
A recent innovation on display is a pill that is swallowed, with a thin thread on the end, and inside the stomach, it expands to a sponge that is then pulled back up — and looks like it could revolutionise early tests for oesophagus cancers, which are currently hard to spot in their early stages.
Even if being asked to cough up what looks like a cat’s furball feels like a curious way to get at it.
Some of the displays are gross – but that’s because they predate modern cancer treatments, so while they are a bit urgh, they are oddly positive images as they show how good science has got at preventing the massive malignant tumours that disfigured people.
A few areas are harder to grasp, such as the 3D models of cancers, which medical students will understand, but better labelling of what is what might have added some context. Much better are the interactive displays, and a “game” trying different treatments to kill cancers in a Petrie dish explains very well why doctors often need to use multiple drugs to clear a cancer out of the body. A video showing a cancer moving on its own around a maze is both fascinating to watch, and yet utterly terrifying in an “alien invasion from outer space” sort of way.
This is an exhibition that shows the dry clinical efforts to beat cancer, but because cancer is such an emotional disease for the people affected by it, the exhibition is also very uplifting at times about how cancer is slowly losing the war on humans.
The exhibition ends with comic books, noting that cancer, a disease that people rarely talked about is now something that people are keen to talk about in many forms, including modern comics.
Now that’s a positive. The Big C is no longer something people conceal almost as if they’re ashamed of it.
As an aside, there’s a hospital waiting room sofa in the exhibition to sit in and listen to some oral history, but why are hospital sofas so uncomfortable to sit in? I’ve never been in a GP or a hospital in my life where I could sit comfortably, and when you’re ill, that’s rather important.