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.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.
17 thoughts on “How Close Are We to Curing Cancer?”
What about all the non fda approved cancer treaments which are known to be effective. The problem in America is most people dont die from the cancer they die from the treament. It compromises your immune sytom. Kinda need one to fight illnesses. and two, American doctors are crooks they just want peoples money. I knew a doctor who got fired because he was giving his cancer patient apricot seeds which was getting good results. He lost his license over it. The ones who care the fda gets rid of… its All about money.
Or you could just cure all brain diseases and physically transfer your brain into a new body. That way you’re still you, you just have a new body.
Rich people will be doing a partial version of that relatively soon: printing organ replacements on demand, to replace old failing ones. But as I said, it won’t be cheap.
Treating bad cancers would be easier if whole vital organs could be removed and replaced with functional ones at once.
But the breaking point is the brain, which can’t be replaced without killing the person’s mind.
Another sci-fi solution: grow a new body and mind transfer.
And a sci-fi dillema: is it still you?
In the end if heart disease don’t kill you cancer will. They both are responsible for the majority of deaths.
You cant cure all cancers with one drug. Its such diverse group of diseases. Oh right i just seen article my bad
I know that’s the current wisdom – but I do wonder if a lot of that variation is simply due to the variations between cells.
Perhaps there are just a handful of mechanisms that keep cells working together as parts of a multi-cellular organism. At some point those mechanisms/controls had to have evolved. And once they worked well enough that cancer became rare and generally later in life, the evolutionary pressures weren’t there to keep making those mechanisms more secure.
So MAYBE there really are only a few key things that keep cells ‘enslaved’ to the multicellular organism they form. Identifying those and figuring out how to reinstate them might shut down pretty much all forms of cancer.
The process of growing a multicellular organism from a couple of undifferentiated cells must offer clues to those mechanisms?
Not true. Things like prostate, stomach, breast cancer which are still affected by those two things, but not mainly caused by by them, have been in a massive decline. Still too many die, but going down dramatically. Childhood cancer deaths are also falling rapidly.
Most of that was due to reduction in smoking and air pollution. Almost none of it was due to improved chemo.
A.I. and personalized medicine will make the next major improvements in this disease aggregate that is too complex for even the smartest doctors to understand fully. A.I. will uncover patterns in specific individuals and prescribe tailored treatments for them that no doctor, or even a team, can do alone.
Here’s a graph:
If the rest of Nixon’s war’s went that well then things would be very different.
Cancer deaths per/100,000 have dropped dramatically since 92 for every type of cancer. How is that a failure?
Cancer is not a single disease. It’s thousands of them that we group together only because they look superficially similar as disorderly, destructive tissue growth.
It’s the information systems of the cells derailing in their function and going stupid and rogue, thanks to random mutations and micro-evolution working against us, with some genetic and environmental proclivity at play.
We will develop better remedies and probably vaccine-like cures for some of them, but not all. There are so many potential tissues and organs affected, that we can only expect to improve our survival odds and improve the detection methods.
To actually vanquish them, we will need some really miraculous technologies that we could only expect to see in the far future, like very finely controlled nanotech and nanomedicine. Something very close to full understanding and control of our biological processes. So much as to make me think that we will only beat cancer when we can defeat aging, both the result of degradation of the body organization and information systems.
Prostrate cancer is such a slow growing cancer that 5 year survival isn’t really a good measure. 5 year survival without any treatment at all is remarkably high. Most men who make it into their 70’s or 80’s die with, but not of, prostate cancer.
The problem with prostate cancer has always been that, once it metastasizes, it moves into your bones, and you die a really agonizing death. As in, ribs breaking when you roll over in your sleep, that sort of thing. That, and once it metastasizes the only effective treatment is chemical castration, (Because it requires testosterone to grow, but grows so slowly that it’s scarcely responsive at all to normal chemotherapy.) which aside from the obvious problems, is really bad for a guy’s health.
If it weren’t for that, it would be treated more like benign prostate hypertrophy, with periodic surgery.
It’s quite normal, if you get diagnosed with it, (I was, back in 2009.) to discuss with your doctor whether you want to just keep an eye on it, rather than treat it right away. On the one hand, you can get many years without the side effects of prostate surgery, (Which can be no fun at all.) on the other, if it does metastasize while you’re putting off the surgery, your prospects suddenly become much worse.
I didn’t wait, and that choice saved my life… Chiefly because the preoperative physical caught the lymphoma which would otherwise have killed me in a few months! Lucky break, that.
I remember Nixon and the war against cancer. Just as much a failure as his war against drugs.
Now we celebrate a three month improvement in survival time.
We will only find a cure for cancer when we fully understand the machinery of the cell. I think it will take several more centuries.
I suppose the symbol picture depicts a virus, not a cancer cell.
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