It’s a question that everybody’s asking, since everyone knows someone who has been diagnosed or is currently dealing with some form of cancer: just how close are we to curing the disease?
We’re at a point where a cancer diagnosis is scary, but manageable in many cases. After getting a breast cancer diagnosis, for example, your life will certainly change, but the average 10-year survival rate is 83 percent, and there are many treatment options available. Prostate cancer, so long as it doesn’t spread to other areas of the body, has a 5-year survival rate of 100 percent.
But what about that other 17 percent of people struggling with breast cancer? And what about people for whom cancer spreads? Or more aggressive, life-threatening forms of cancer, like pancreatic cancer, where the 5-year survival rate is just 7 percent?
How close are we to finding a cure?
The Challenges of Curing Cancer
First, it’s important to understand just how hard it would be to find a catch-all “cure” for this multifaceted disease. In fact, it may be impossible.
* Cancer comes in many different varieties. Cancer is a convenient term, but it’s not a very descriptive one. It’s an umbrella category for hundreds of different diseases, which affect different body parts, behave differently, come with different symptoms, and are associated with different risk factors. Even within the specific types of cancer, there are many different sub-varieties, and it’s entirely possible for one instance of the disease to deviate from our expectations. Beyond that, cancer can spread and evolve into different varieties, making it extremely difficult to find any single comprehensive solution.
* We don’t understand carcinogenesis. Carcinogenesis is the process through which healthy cells become cancerous, and it’s something even our best oncologists don’t fully understand. There isn’t a single action or event that can switch a cell from transitioning from healthy to cancerous; instead, we have to consider the interactions of many different variables. Hundreds to thousands of genes all play a role in how cancer mutates, and until we understand all those interactions, we won’t be able to prevent, mitigate, or reverse that mutation.
* Cancer cells are our cells. In many diseases, we have some foreign body to target; there’s an infection of bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms that is possible to detect and attack with conventional medicine. We can either create a compound or treatment that finds and destroys these foreign invaders, or we can nurture the body’s own immune system to fight back against them. This isn’t the case with cancer. Cancerous cells are mutated versions of the body’s own cells, making it difficult to destroy or modify them without damaging other, healthy cells in the process. So far, attempts to use the body’s immune system to manage cancer have been disappointing, but there are some recent advancements that look promising.
* No two cases are alike. Even if you found a treatment that completely eliminated a specific type of cancer from one individual’s body, there’s no guarantee that the same treatment could be used on a broader scale. That’s because no two patients are alike, and inventing and improving cancer treatments. Previous therapies like chemotherapy are still in circulation, but newer forms of treatment, including some that are completely drug-free, are providing more options to the patients who need them most. For example, with MRI-guided focal laser ablation, a precise laser can target and eliminate cancer cells with an image from an imaging scan. With fluorescence lifetime imagine (FLI), a scan can help doctors gauge the presence of proteins that facilitate cancerous growths, and a special prescription can block that growth. Better immunotherapy techniques are also getting better at specially marking cancerous cells, so they make easier targets for your body’s own immune system.
The Bottom Line
There’s good reason to be optimistic about the future of cancer treatment. The treatments we have are constantly getting better, and we’re seeing the rollout of dozens of new therapies that could stunt the development of or completely eliminate cancerous growth. However, it’s inadvisable to get attached to the idea of someday finding a comprehensive “cure” for cancer. Cancer isn’t a single disease, and even if it were, it would be too complex and too dependent on individual differences for a single approach to be effective 100 percent of the time.