Cancer will be high on the agenda for many doctors as we move into the next phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. But how much progress has been made in treatment advances in the past few years and are we any closer to the all-important cure?
Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally and is thought to touch everyone at some point in their lifetime. One in two of us are expected to get it ourselves.
With cancer being amongst the biggest and cruellest killers, it’s no surprise that it is one of the most heavily invested in and thoroughly researched areas of all time.
It seems as though we are constantly making technological advances; we have put men on the moon and more recently, we created a Covid-19 vaccine in under a year.
Billions of pounds are pumped into cancer research annually, so why are we no closer to finding a cure?
Understanding cancer as a disease
To understand why it is taking so long to find a cure, we must first understand cancer itself, as complex and multi-faceted.
First of all, cancer is an umbrella term for over 200 different diseases. It is therefore important to highlight that scientists are not searching for one singular cure.
Each type of cancer is unique and arises from different causes for different reasons and also responds differently to treatment. What might work for one person, won’t help someone else.
This is because cancer cells mutate and as the tumour grows, more and more mutations accumulate. This means that every tumour has a unique set of mutations, so a drug that works for one person, might have no effect on another.
Interestingly, this can even apply to identical twins, who share 100% of the same DNA. This is because twins are exposed to different environmental factors throughout their life which could switch normal genes on and off, such as the tumour-suppressor genes responsible for shutting down cancer cells when they begin to grow.
When normal cells divide, their DNA is copied pretty much perfectly. However, when a cancer cell divides, a new change is bought about in the DNA. This means that not every cancer cell within a single tumour is identical. So, while a drug might be able to kill some of the cancer, it won’t always be able to kill all of it, allowing the tumour to grow again.
Cancer cells can also become immune to treatment or, more disconcertingly, hide from treatment. If a cancer stem cell manages to evade the drugs given to the patient, a relapse could happen several years later even if the initial treatment appeared to be a success.
This means that cancer cells are very good at staying alive and therefore makes any form of cancer very hard to “cure”. Some scientists suggest that we should move away from using the phrase “cancer cure” and instead move towards the idea of learning how to manage cancer as a chronic disease, like diabetes.
Have there been any significant improvements in cancer treatment?
Despite how things may seem, cancer treatment has improved significantly over the last few decades. Survival rates have doubled since the 1970s, with 50% of all cancer patients now go on to live for at least 10 years after their diagnosis.
Some of the largest successes are in the prevention of the disease. Many experts thank the education system for informing the general public about the ways we can lower our chances of getting cancer. This includes highlighting the dangers of smoking, UV radiation and obesity.
There have also been improvements in the treatment of cancer, with immunotherapy now being a common cancer treatment as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. There are even clinical trials starting for a new cancer vaccine, which are due to begin within the next three years.
Just because we don’t hear about these breakthroughs very often, doesn’t mean they’re not happening. Progress within cancer research is being made every day, which many charities and research groups put down to generous donations from the public.
Debunking the myths about cancer research
Many people believe that there is a cure for cancer which is being concealed by big pharmaceutical companies. This theory has been around for over a century and is rooted in the idea that the “Big Pharma” is hiding the cure to line their pockets.
Worldwide Cancer Research has addressed this criticism and explained why this would not be beneficial for anyone. Firstly, as previously explained, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a single cure for cancer.
Secondly, it wouldn’t actually be profitable for big pharmaceutical companies to hide the cure. This is because such companies invest vast amounts of money for drug testing; if they found the cure for cancer, the company would want to claim that money back.
Furthermore, it’s very unlikely a secret so large would be kept secret for very long. The number of people involved in researching and manufacturing the drug would be enormous; and since cancer affects nearly everyone on a personal level, it’s very unlikely that all of those people would be willing to keep the cure a secret.
Is money the answer to finding a cure for cancer?
After researching this topic, many people will be wondering if there’s anything we can do to speed up finding new cures. Is it just a matter of more money equals more time, resources and people dedicating their lives to cancer research?
In an interview for Vice, Professor Peter Johnson, Chief Clinician at Cancer Research UK said: “We can always use more funding to speed up progress. The more money, the more people we can employ to put on the problem. But it's partly hindered by the speed at which science has gone and our how our knowledge goes forward. There are lots of different things but there's no doubt at all that money would be a great accelerator.”
However we get there, it seems as though we are always making progress when it comes to cancer research. Scientists learn new things about cancer everyday and thanks to them, more people are surviving cancer than ever before.