Sometimes, all it takes is one breakthrough—one miraculous moment in a research lab or patient ward—to make a huge difference in the lives of millions. Look at Dr. Salk and his polio vaccine or Dr. Barnard with his first human heart transplant. Yes, those moments were preceded by years of research, investigation, failure, and frustration, but once they occurred, medicine never looked back.
Millions of lives were spared the pain and suffering of polio, and three to five thousand lives a year are saved through heart transplants, not to mention all the friends and loved ones of those few thousand who are affected by their new leases on life.
When it comes to cancer, however, there have been few of those medical miracles, few breakthroughs leading to a definitive, life-altering cure. It’s not business mismanagement, lack of research, lack of funding, or lack of concern. It has a lot more to do with human biology than anything else. It is much different than electronics or websites. Let’s look at some of the facts and obstacles that are hindering cancer cures.
- Cancer forms at the basic, cellular level. All it takes is one malfunctioning, mutated cell. Science is beginning to understand how these cells become damaged, and even ways of stopping them. But given that the average human body is made up of an estimated 37.2 TRILLION cells, finding those whacked out, non-working cells isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. That’s why cancer detection gets a lot of attention from the researchers. If we can find it quicker, we can fix it quicker.
- Cellular functioning at the molecular level is still fairly undiscovered territory. We know that there are over 100 types of GTPases—small GTPase, for example—that tell the parts of the cell what to do and when to do it. These cell signalers can be troublesome and lead to mutation, malfunction, and even cell death, especially when they forget to tell the cell to stop doing something. All of these malfunctions can lead to cancer and cancerous growths, but with over 100 enzymes in the GTPase family, it’s going to take a while to understand what each one does, how it functions, why it functions when it does, and what can be done to ensure that it always functions properly to avoid health risks.
- Heart cells do not necessarily function like liver, brain, or skin cells. So, we not only have to understand all the workings of all the various parts of the cell in general, but we have to understand the specific inner workings of each type of cell in the body. So, while advances may have been made in lung cancer treatments last year, those same advances can’t be rolled over to skin cancer or brain tumor. We may think of cancer as one disease, but it is actually many diseases, and since each patient is unique, cancers must be treated as the unique diseases and conditions that they truly are.
- Many treatments are still only attacking the symptoms, not the root of the disease. Chemotherapy and radiation often kill the cancerous cells, but they don’t address the reasons why those cancerous cells formed in the first place. This hinders treatment, as all it takes, as we’ve discussed, is one malfunctioning cell to form cancer. If the treatments aren’t 100% effective, the cancer is still growing, one cell at a time. This can also lead to relapse or other forms of cancer elsewhere in the body. None of these scenarios makes for a successful “cure” of cancer. Researchers are working on gene therapy and immunology therapies as ways try to fight the cancer without the toxic treatments commonly used, all the while attacking the cancer at its source within the cells.
Cancer treatment advancements are being made nearly every year. New drugs are found and new procedures are tested and proven effective. But until we can completely understand how our bodies really work, we can’t expect cures anytime soon. Until then, the best we can do is to live as healthily and as cancer-free as possible.