Although cardiovascular disease is responsible for more deaths than cancer each year, cancer is thought by many people to be "number one," pathologically speaking. This may actually be a good example of statistics not necessarily being entirely accurate. More people may die from cardiovascular disease simply because the circulatory system (with the heart at the center) degrades as we age--in other words, dying from heart attacks and other such phenomena is a natural part of growing old.
Cancer, on the other hand, occurs when natural processes in the body go wrong. More specifically, when cells start to divide out of control, that's when malignancy sets in. Cells dividing out of control resulting in a benign tumor is also not a good thing--but that is not what we refer to as "cancer."
Cancer, in other words, is not "natural." No one is pre-destined by nature to get cancer--notwithstanding genetic predisposition since this usually involves faulty genes.
Actually, in a perfect world, our cells should continue to refresh themselves indefinitely, thus obviating the need to get old. As it happens, though, after a certain number of years, something within our DNA tells our bodies to start aging. Why or how this happens is a mystery but, nevertheless, this is understood to be (for now at least, technologically speaking) quite "natural."
No such understanding exists, though, in regard to cancer. Cancer, like infections, is something that we need not tolerate; in fact, it's something that we should be able to, in time, eradicate or at the very least, keep mostly under control.
What's the Good News?
When it comes to cancer research for a cure, the astounding thing is that there is actually much more good news than bad news. More importantly, there is not one but several avenues of research that should lead to cures for most types of cancer in existence today. Here is a short list of the many things to be optimistic about:
- More money is being spent on cancer research than on any other area in the biosciences. Of course, how much money is invested on anything is not by itself a guarantee of success but this certainly helps improve the odds greatly.
- Every country in the world (more specifically, the developed ones) is aggressively conducting research for a cure. Few other areas of research, in fact, have involved these many people, facilities and tools.
- A number of new tools offer novel and unique approaches for the eventual defeat of these devastating diseases (for cancer is really a collection of diseases). Some of the most promising tools include:
- Stem Cell Therapy: With the use of these "clean slate" cells, it may eventually be possible to repair or replace the damaged cells cancer inflicts on the body. Unfortunately, this technology is merely in its infancy but, as we develop the ability to control this bio-apparatus, the sky is the limit as to what we may be able to achieve.
- Anti-angiogenesis: Cancer cells need so much glucose and other nutrients that they have to build their own massive blood supplies; consequently, tumors cannot thrive without their own new extensive blood vessel systems. If we can block these from being built, tumors can be denied the biofuels they crave. Unfortunately, this is another relatively new technology that we still have not mastered but, when we do, you can wave bye-bye to many types of tumors
- Targeted Therapies: Fortunately, this is one tool that is already being used with some success. Involving such things as monoclonal antibody and photodynamic therapies, this is one approach that is bound to put a big dent on many types of cancer, ostensibly because the idea is to bring treatments directly to the affected areas. This approach promises to create fewer side-effects while providing more torque for each round of treatment.
- Immunotherapy: It's no secret that the human body has the ability to squash cancer cells on its own; in fact, we produce tumor suppressor substances which often are enough to keep erratic cells from dividing progressively out of control (thus resulting in diseased neoplasms). We are presently looking for ways to help the human body regain the ability to use these tools already in place (sometimes malfunctioning or not being triggered when necessary). Some of the tools under consideration include new vaccines and the use of interferon and other cytokynes capable of inducing immune responses.
- Exosomes. These tiny secretions may be used in the future to quickly, inexpensively and un-intrusively (as opposed to biopsies) monitor and diagnose certain types of cancer.
- Experimental, Complementary & Alternative Therapies: Actually, there are hundreds of therapies out there which may provide more benefits than we realize. The therapies that deal with, for example, dietary options may provide answers for questions that chemical and other avenues may not presently be able to answer or address.
The Bad News
Unfortunately, there are some things in regard to cancer research which we could be doing much better. Some of these things may be outside our immediate control but some of the others can be ameliorated if enough people and resources are put at the disposal of the right entities. Some of the problems we face include:
- Physicians treating cancer in the US are given very little leeway in terms of what treatment plans they may employ against cancer; in fact, most are restricted to the main conventional treatment tools--i.e., chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapies, & surgery. Some people wonder if it would make more sense if doctors had more of a say as to what tools they used for their patients; it is also being questioned whether some of the tools being strategically excluded might in fact be helpful for some patients.
- Nutrition strategies or therapies are not very aggressively pursued in most cancer treatment plans, most probably because many professionals don't believe that dietary habits lead to or can treat/cure cancer. Some experts (most notably in the nutrition sciences) question whether such approaches are short-sighted and even misinformed.
- Cancer research in the US is almost exclusively controlled by federal agencies (especially the FDA), universities that depend heavily on funds from federal agencies and the pharmaceutical industry, and the pharmaceutical companies that produce most of the medicines used against cancer. This constitutes, in the eyes of some, a monopoly of said research; some people wonder whether this is in the best interest of research in general.
- The successes and progress to date in cancer research are small in numbers and quality, considering the huge number of dollars (probably in the trillions) poured into this area. Whether the money spent/invested thus far has been well spent is, at best, a matter of opinion.
- Several so-called alternative therapies (most notably, the Hoxsey, Gerson, laetrile, etc.) were arbitrarily abandoned or condemned with very limited scientific studies to back up the objections; in fact, there is some indication that politics rather than science were the motivating forces for these therapies being banned from US soil. Only one major study, for example, was used against laetrile and that study had several flaws (including the lack of the use of controls). Maybe more rigorous scientific tools should be used when rejecting any alternative cancer treatments in the future?
- So-called experimental and complementary therapies are mostly frowned upon in the US. Maybe if these avenues were more closely scrutinized (and, if indicated, used), more patients might benefit from their being used?
- There is still no cure for cancer; at best, people treated successfully on average merely get 5 years or less of life expectancy. Some people question, furthermore, whether this extended life expectancy is of low quality, considering how painful conventional treatments can be and the many side-effects they inflict.
- Some critics wonder if maybe some people (mostly within the pharmaceutical industry) are benefiting so well from conventional treatments that maybe they are less than highly-motivated to find an actual cure. This "greed-above-welfare" theory may be hard to believe to some people but, if true, why should cancer be above the same greed seen in other areas of the economy?
Truly, the good news does indeed exceed the bad news, both in terms of quantity and potential for change/progress. With each passing day, we are getting a better understanding of cancer--i.e., what it is, why it is so difficult to treat, how it may be best attacked, when we may actually see cures, etc. As our understanding of these diseases improve, so will our arsenal for eradicating these menaces.
It's not a question of "if" but "when" we will cure cancer. If we only had one weapon being readied, then perhaps we might be more pessimistic but, considering all the different approaches that are being put at our disposal, there is no question that we will win the war against cancer . . . it's just a matter of time.
Copyright, 2015. Fred Fletcher. All rights reserved.
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