Meditations of an oncology geek

Why haven’t you (Ryon) discovered a cure for cancer?

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30 April 2011

This week’s article was inspired by a (somewhat personal) question by Peter Borak from San Diego, California:

Why haven’t you (Ryon) discovered a “cure for cancer?”

Sheesh. Give me a break. I’m barely a quarter century old and still working on my Ph.D. That’s why I’m a scientific apprentice

But in all honesty, he brings up a very interesting topic. Why is it that forty years after Nixon declared “war” on cancer we still have not eradicated it?

Right: A full-page ad that ran in the Washington Post on December 9th 1969. The campaign is not new, but the approaches are.

For one, there are over 200 different classified types of cancer, and counting: these are essentially over 200 very different diseases that are all given the suffix “cancer.” Both prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer are considered “cancer”: the former takes decades to develop, is easily detectable in early stages, and is often so benign that doctors will not even remove it, because to do so would take many more years than the patient’s predicted life expectancy to develop into anything health-threatening. The latter is almost never detected in early stages, quickly spreads, and most of those patients who are diagnosed will not celebrate their next birthday even with aggressive treatment.

Science has made significant inroads on certain types of cancer, like CML, wherein a class of wonder drugs can exploit a particular kink in its armor. In the case of CML, a 95% death rate has turned into a 90% cure rate. There is a really cool commentary on it in a recent article of The Smithsonian.

In all likelihood there will not be one “cure” for cancer, given the wide variety of cancer types, all of which respond differently to particular therapies. Cancer is also an age-related disease: the risk of cancer development with age is so high that at a certain point the frequency of de novo cancer development in a patient would theoretically outstrip even the most aggressive treatments. It might be easier to find a cure for aging than cancer!

What I find particularly interesting is that putative anti-aging therapies, like rapamycin, also retard cancer development, in addition to anti-aging activities like regular aerobic exercise.

The picture is materializing such that aging and cancer are intrinsically related. In a nutshell, activities and habits that keep you young (on the inside, NOT superficially) are likely to prevent cancer as well, like regular aerobic exercise.

Perhaps we can find a cure for cancer, and perhaps we can find a cure for aging – it may seem like a stretch, but given science’s track record, I will not rule either out.

In the meantime, I personally do my best to prevent my own cancer development by incorporating plenty of aerobic exercise into my weekly schedule, as well as maintaining a healthy diet, liberally using of sunscreen, and scheduling yearly physical examinations. As discussed in a previous article, the best treatment for cancer is prevention; thereby never developing it at all.


Written by Ryon

April 29th, 2011 at 5:50 pm

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