There’s never been a better time to be hopeful about cancer. There has never been a moment when both the prevention and treatment of various types of cancer have been better possible. And as more of us are now experiencing what appear to be real, honest healings, it is time to ditch the concept of “curing cancer.”
“An unprecedented 100% of rectal cancer patients in a small immunotherapy clinical trial had their cancer resolved after immunotherapy.”
Last fall, the Cleveland Clinic launched a vaccine clinical trial with the goal of preventing triple-negative breast cancer in high-risk patients. In late May, Los Angeles-based cancer care and research center City of Hope and Australian biotech company Imugene announced their first clinical trial of a cancer-killing virus in patients with advanced tumors. And then, earlier this week, came amazing news from Memorial Sloan Kettering — an unprecedented 100% of rectal cancer patients in a small immunotherapy clinical trial had their cancer “resolved after immunotherapy — without the need for standard treatments like radiation or surgery or chemotherapy” — a trinity that says so what is terrible to bear is that it is known to patients as “cut, burn and poison”.
So is the long-awaited cure just around the corner? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy – because cancer is anything but easy.
“The cure” is a phrase that is fortunately less common than it was in 1969, when cancer researcher Sidney Farber ran a full-page ad in the Washington Post challenging the President; “Mr. Nixon: You can cure cancer,” the ad said. Just a decade ago, the New York Times asked, “Is the cure for cancer in you?”
Though the rhetoric has since become more nuanced, the phrase refuses to disappear entirely. There are initiatives like Susan G. Komen’s “Race for the Cure” and Wacoal’s “Fit for the Cure”. There are biopharmaceutical companies making incomplete claims of a “universal cure for cancer.” And there are casual headlines in the mainstream media, like The Telegraph’s recent musing on whether “the cure for cancer” is in your gut. When the Biden administration ambitiously announced the relaunch of the Cancer Moonshot plan earlier this year to “end cancer as we know it,” it at least changed the goal to include a few words about “enhancing the experience of dealing with cancer.” live and survive it”.
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I sometimes cautiously describe myself as cured. After receiving a quickly fatal diagnosis of metastatic melanoma and participating in an innovative immunotherapy clinical trial, I have not presented evidence of disease in ten years. But I try carefully to make that clear my It wasn’t healing the Cure.
Cancer isn’t a thing. It’s over a hundred things, over a hundred variations on a theme of uncontrolled cell growth, each with their own particular expressions. There are four types of breast cancer, four types of melanoma. like dr Jonathan Chernoff, Chief Scientific Officer at Fox Chase Cancer Center, explained: “It turns out cancer is a generic term. There are many different types of cancer in different tissues that work in different ways. They are not all caused by the same mutations and they will not all respond to the same type of treatment.”
Genetic variations in all of us make each cancer a unique experience. Some treatments work well for some people and not at all for others. I didn’t have the right BRAF mutation for vemurafenib, a treatment that was approved by the FDA just days before my stage 4 diagnosis. Is vemurafenib an effective treatment for a specific type of cancer? Yes. Would anyone call it “the cure” for cancer? Of course not.
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Along with the really exciting prospect of more people being able to say it would have, past tense, cancer and even more, never getting it at all, there has to be room for all or nothing thinking. Heals are great; i should know And advances in one type of cancer can often be a signal of hope for treatments for others. For example, immunotherapy used to be the dark horse of oncology. Today, it’s an approved protocol for dozens of cancers, with clinical trials for even more — just like MSKCC’s promising rectal cancer trial — chugging along right now. Even deadly cancers like the pancreas have seen incredible breakthroughs lately.
But these breakthroughs will continue to be very bespoke proposals for the foreseeable future. As one researcher once helpfully explained to me, for something as complex and variable as cancer, you don’t get a one-size-fits-all cure-all like penicillin. Frankly, the idea of having many effective options and treatments instead of a magic bullet for the second leading cause of death in the US is pretty amazing.
As we continue to make strides toward eradicating cancer, we can make room for too deal with it. For some patients, cancer is no longer a death sentence, but just a condition they can endure. Some people’s tumors just can’t be completely eradicated. For them, the phrase “stopping the progression” can be just as beautiful and offer as long and bright a future as “cured.” Given the often invasive and arduous nature of the treatment and the strain it can have on the human body and psyche, the goal of a flawless scan makes far less sense than a healthy overall quality of life anyway.
“Future cancer therapeutics will not win by a simple cancer-killing strategy,” wrote the authors of a 2020 article in the journal Cancers. Instead, “We would likely benefit more patients overall by turning cancer into a manageable chronic disease rather than just focusing on finding a complete ‘holy grail’ cure.”
This is a mindset worth embracing, even for those of us outside of the research world. It would mean that a diagnosis would not come with the presumed assumption that we are “fighting” cancer. It would mean that a small word could not become the umbrella term for such a complex experience. In this breathtaking era of science, it would mean shifting the narrative from a war against a single enemy to a tale of incredible hope for millions more living, breathing people.
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