I love to talk about my research with anyone who’ll listen. To me, the intricacies of life, how it works, and how things can go wrong are all fascinating to ponder. I currently study melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer, and when I tell people I do cancer research, one question invariably arises: “where’s the cure?”
To discuss why we haven’t cured cancer, it’s helpful to have an idea of what it is in the first place. You probably have the gist of it; it’s uncontrolled cell growth. Over the course of your life, parts of your cells’ instruction manuals (i.e. DNA) get deleted, switched around, duplicated, or distorted. This can have a number of effects, but sometimes it results in cells going at it alone and no longer cooperating with the body. This is cancer.
Cancer differs from many typical diseases we come across. Things like strep throat and the flu are caused by invading pathogens which can be targeted with antibiotics and antivirals. Cancer however has no one cause. There isn’t a single type of cancer, there are hundreds, and different cell types and DNA mutations can be involved. Therein lies the difficulty in curing cancer; it isn’t one thing to cure.
I would actually go further and challenge the idea that we haven’t ever cured cancer. If by cure, you mean get rid of cancer so that it doesn’t return, cures happen all the time. Doctors visualize tumors, then perform surgery to remove them or zap them with high energy radiation that kills cells. They can also infuse chemotherapies, drugs which kill rapidly dividing cells. And other treatments like immunotherapies, hormone therapies, and more are also in development and being deployed to fight, and often defeat cancer. In fact, in the US almost 7 in 10 of those diagnosed with cancer go on to live at least 5 more years and overall deaths from cancer are on the decline, even with more people being diagnosed. It is important to remember that these treatments are rife with side effects which can be debilitating and agonizing, but ongoing research aims to minimize these. So while there’s not some universal cure to all cancers, people are being cured everyday, and this trend is only increasing, thanks to earlier detection and more effective treatments.
One final comment I’ll address is one I’ve heard numerous times: “there’s already a cure, the government/big pharma is just keeping it hidden to make more money.” I’ve just explained above why I don’t think that’s the case. Cancer is more complicated than first meets the eye, and many treatments already effectively cure cancer. But this comment does speak to a larger issue we face as a society; our healthcare system often values profit over human life. Maybe I’ll discuss this and what we can do about it more thoroughly in the future, but when you look at other diseases that have historically been incurable yet treatable, emerging cures for them are hitting markets. Affordability of these treatments is certainly a concern, but pharmaceutical companies are finding new ways to profit from scientific advances, and I don’t see cancer treatments being any different.
So at the end of the day, don’t hold your breath waiting for the miracle cure for all cancers. Cancer is a diverse class of hundreds of diseases that have a number of different causes and effects. However, treatments are getting more and more successful and mortality rates are on the steady decline, and that’s something to celebrate.