Cancer research explained briefly

One reason I (and most people involved in cancer research) don’t like the frequently used term “cure for cancer.” The reason is simple. Embedded within this term is the assumption that cancer is just one disease, when it is most definitely not. Rather, it is many diseases affecting many organs, each with its own mechanism of pathogenesis and each often requiring different treatments. For example, for “liquid” tumors arising from hematopoietic organs, the treatment usually consists primarily of chemotherapy, sometimes with radiation therapy in the case of lymphomas, while “solid” tumors often require surgery as the primary treatment. Different tumors are driven by different oncogenes, different environmental influences, and different biochemistry. They have different growth characteristics, complications, and organs to which they prefer to metastasize. Even with in the same cancer (breast cancer, for example, my specialty), the biological behavior of the cancer within different patients can vary widely, from indolent tumors that grow slowly and may take years to metastasize to highly aggressive tumors that grow rapidly and metastasize widely. That’s why there is no such thing as “a cure for cancer.” There are cures for cancers, and, hopefully, there will be more cures for more cancers over the remaining years of my career.

All of this is my typical roundabout way to introduce perhaps the best simple explanation of this I’ve ever seen. Surprisingly, it’s a cartoon to which a commenter referred me. Here is a panel (click to see the whole cartoon):


This cartoon, and the fact that cancers represent a protean foe, with many faces and many abnormalities, should help explain why the frequent complaint that we haven’t “made much progress” in the 37 years since Nixon’s declared “war on cancer” in general demonstrates a lack of understanding that (1) there is no “war on cancer” there are “wars on cancers” and (2) just how difficult this battle is. I hope to contribute to the development of such cures, but have no illusion that I’m likely to provide any major breakthrough. Rather, I hope that my contributions, modest, great or small, add to the body of knowledge about cancer that one day leads to cures.