Copyright: jovan vitanovski

The Big C

Pivot Points is a monthly column by EuroScientist writer David Bradley.

Cancer. All around. But, is there an epidemic? The statistics would suggest not…for some forms of the disease, at least. Others are on the increase especially as populations age and more and more people survive the infections and altercations of youth, cancers of old age do seem to be more prominent in our lives.

Cancer cure is intangible

When it comes to cancer, six degrees of separation is a substantial overestimate. Almost all of us have close family members who have succumbed and some who have survived. Rare is the individual who does not have at least one person close to them with the illness. Certainly, if not a direct contact, then a friend of a friend, but certainly no further out of our inner circle than that. There have been medical and political “wars on cancer”. Some battles are won, some are lost. The “war”, unfortunately, is one of perpetual attrition. Despite the efforts of charitable organisations, countless research groups, foundations and specialist hospital wings with specialist funding, there will never be a cure.

Cancer, the runaway replication of our own body cells, is not a single disease, it is not a single target at which biomedical arms might be aimed and the enemy eradicated as they might with at least a few infections. The errantly immortal cells of cancer can even evolve resistance to the pharmaceuticals we fire at them and fight back with the kind of chemical weaponry we usually associate with antibiotic-busting superbugs.

As I write this, the World Cancer Leaders’ Summit was well underway in Dublin, Ireland. Declarations for a “cancer-free world” are being signed, sealed…but, unfortunately, perhaps not being delivered. We can, it seems vaccinate, against some forms of the disease, such as cervical cancer and we do have effective drugs and treatments, surgical and otherwise, for others, such as breast and testicular cancer. Other forms, such as lung cancer, ovarian and pancreatic cancer remain stubbornly intractable. Part of the problem is awareness of the early symptoms of the likes of bowel and prostate cancer. But, even then, symptoms often arise only in the late stages by which point it is often too late to say that any treatment will lead to remission.

Medicine is losing the war against cancer

Moreover, cancer cells are slippery creatures, cut them out, poison them with chemotherapy and blast them with radiation, but if a seed is left behind, it will commonly be stronger for having survived the onslaught. The survivors will continue to replicate and their progeny will secrete themselves via the lymph system into tissues, organs and bones remote from the site of the primary disease. Once such metastasis has occurred, the survival rates diminish horribly as there are very few therapies that can target tissues affected in this way without causing severe harm. Those experimental anticancer agents that do attack metastases are currently trialing with varying degrees of success and seem only to offer a short-term solution, a few weeks or months of life extension. This, of course, is important to the patient and to those close to them, but it is not, medicine winning the war against cancer, sadly.

The Dublin conference has just announced that cancer incidence will “rise from 12.7 million in 2008 to 21.4 million by 2030” and that 240 representatives of governments, the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum, as well as civil and corporate leaders from over 60 countries are now publicly agreed to find ways to “halt the spiraling global cancer epidemic.” It all sounds very noble. And, I wish them luck. Certainly, we should be ploughing money into scientific research to find new and better ways to treat cancer.

No one it seems has not been touched by cancer or will not lose a loved one to this serious killer. In the developed world particularly, it is the biggest threat to health, a long life and happiness for too many people – alongside cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke, brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and obesity. Even osteoporosis leads to breakages and hospitalizes countless people who never return home because they succumb to hospital-acquired infections and other problems as a result. Tragic as it is, cancer has a long way to go to catch up with the world’s truly big killers, the killers such as malaria that have killed more people than the sum of any other cause of premature death.

Should cancer be top priority?

Should we not also be ploughing even money into fighting the bigger killers such as poverty, starvation, lack of fresh drinking water, natural disasters and the myriad diseases rampant in the undeveloped and developed nations, including malaria and HIV. These are all set to exact a far greater toll on humanity numbering in the hundreds of millions, if not billions in coming decades. Should we, in the developed world, not care about those people, simply because on the whole we do not feel that they are within the inner circle of our 6 degrees of separation?

Featured image credit: jovan vitanovski via Shutterstock

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David Bradley
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