Since humans first understood what ‘cancer’ was, we thrown billions of dollars and years of manpower towards finding a ‘cure.’ In 2016, cancer was the second leading cause of death in the United States, killing nearly 600,000 people according to the CDC. Second only to heart disease, cancer has been a major cause of mortality and disease burden in the United States, only justifying the immense resources we’ve put towards finding a cure.
Many people, especially those who have had loved ones affected by this deadly and all too common disease, have solid faith in the scientific process to find a cure for this debilitating condition. There are even some out there who believe that there are certain pharmaceutical companies out there who already have ‘the cure’ but choose not to distribute it due to a higher profit margin for long-term treatment of persistent cancer patients. Regardless, most people believe in the promise of finding a cure for all cancer.
The truth is, however, that there is no cure to cancer. There are many. Because cancer isn’t just one disease, but rather a collection of diseases defined by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) as “a term for diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and can invade nearby tissues.” There are well over 100 different types of cancer (that we know of) and a multitude of different subtypes within them each with distinct pathologic etiologies! Check out the NCI list of different types to see for yourself. This means that when we say, “cancer,” we are actually referring to hundreds of different diseases that must be treated differently because they behave uniquely.
What is cancer then? Based on the NCI definition presented above, it is just an abnormal growth of cells. The type of cancer delineates where this abnormal growth arises and there are certain hints in the name as well to tell what type of cell it comes from. A tumor that arises from astrocytes in the brain, called a glioblastoma, is completely different than colon cancer that arises from epithelial cells lining the large intestinal wall. Different locations, different cells, different diseases.
So while each individual type of cancer could have a potential cure (and some already do), to say that we are going to find a one size fits all cure for every single type of cancer is a myth. That’s like saying we’re going to have a cure for “brain disease” within the decade. What type of brain disease (stroke, glioblastoma, migraines, meningitis, etc.)? It’s just not possible. Even saying something like, “find the cure to breast cancer” doesn’t make a ton of sense because there are at least 6 different subtypes of breast cancer, some of which respond to different drugs better because they are comprised of cell types that might have different vulnerabilities to certain drug therapies (and even be cured).
This fits in with a larger theme of “personalized medicine” in which treatments are tailored to each individuals situation, type of cancer, and lifestyle preferences (i.e. someone might not like needles and doesn’t want injections). Unfortunately for us, as great as a global cure to cancer would be, it’s just not that clear cut based on our current knowledge of medicine.