Cancer. The mere word incites so much anxiety for many that it has a name – Cancer Phobia. Such is the intense fear of, and uncommon interest in, the disease. Most any cancer news, especially if pitched as a “Breakthrough,” gains outsized media play, often headlined as a potential “Cure.” Regrettably, much of this is high-sounding hype, raising false hopes and leaving oncologists to tell desperate patients that the proclaimed therapy won’t be available for years, if ever.
Recently, TV viewers were pummeled with slick ads from Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center promising its “Moonshot” initiative would ” make cancer history.
“Deep down we know it’s exaggeration, but we want to believe it.
President Obama recently signed legislation unleashing $1.8 billion to boost efforts to find a cancer cure “Once and for all.” He also called his initiative a “Moonshot,” as in the notion that if we can land humans on the moon we can surely cure cancer. President Richard Nixon used the moon-landing analogy way back in 1971 when he declared “War on cancer.” Some predicted a cure would be found by the nation’s 1976 bicentennial.
Now, 45 years and $100 billion after the onset of Nixon’s “War,” there are 1.65 million new cancer cases annually, making it America’s second-leading cause of death. What’s going on here? First, there’s a broad misunderstanding that cancer is a single disease, like polio, that could be taken out by simply finding a “Silver bullet” therapy. Depending on who’s counting, there are some 400 cancers with a spectrum of traits that require a range of treatments.
Some grow slow; some stay in place, others spread; some are treatable, some aren’t. All cancer cells can change, requiring treatments to be adjusted. Some even mutate into resistant forms that can make treatment impossible. Some cancers arise from tainted cells embedded in inherited DNA, although those predisposed may never develop cancer.
To intervene into hereditary cancer, scientists must understand much, much more about how the hugely complex human genome drives cell function. Is it realistic to expect that cancers and their many variants can be “Cured”? “Not this year,” mused Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society, adding that the current focus is on reducing cancer’s “Devastating impact.”