Author: Martyna Kosno
Despite millions of dollars spent on it and countless hours worked on it, cancer is still one of the primary hazards to humankind. It is so dangerous that WHO listed it as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. So how is it possible that 50 years after moon landing, we still have not cured cancer?
According to the National Cancer Institute’s statistics, about 1.8 million people in the US will be diagnosed with cancer by the end of year 2019: over a quarter of a million – with breast cancer and a little under that number – with lung cancer; these are the two most common types. But what about all the rest? Well, it turns out that there is still a very long list of other types of cancer, all of which share one common feature: uncontrolled cell division.
Yes, you read it right – the uncontrolled cell division is the only common aspect amongst all cancer types. All other aspects of this disease are specific to particular kinds of cancer. The major types include:
- Carcinoma – the most common type of cancer, commonly occurs in lungs, skin, breasts and other organs or glands
- Melanoma – cancers of cells that make the skin pigment – they are different from skin carcinomas
- Sarcoma – group of cancers of bone, muscle, fat, cartilage and other types of connective tissue in our bodies
- Lymphoma – a type of cancer that attacks lymph nodes
- Leukemia – cancer of blood or bone marrow – usually does not form solid tumors.
As you can see, even under these major categories, there is still a more specific subdivision to many different organs or types of cells. So just like we cannot treat all bacterial infections with the same type of antibiotic, we cannot treat all cancers with one, magical medicine. What treatment a patient receives depends on a multitude of different factors: where is the tumor located? What stage of cancer is it? What molecular mechanisms govern this specific type of cancer? Are there any characteristic genetic alterations that have occurred in the patient’s organism? Because we are so diverse, every person will respond differently to a given type of treatment and that is why a specific cancer treatment needs to be tailored for the particular needs of a given patient.
When President Richard Nixon in his 1971 State of the Union Address declared the war on cancer, nobody expected that this war will take so long and that it will so often feel like we are losing. So are we losing or not? Despite the many diagnoses and many deaths projected for the upcoming years, there has been a lot of success in the cancer treatment and diagnosis, including among others:
- Major development in curing pediatric leukemia, which used to kill ~90% of children suffering from it decreased to ~10%
- The availability of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine now protects women from the most common causes of cervical cancer
- Immunotherapy – based treatments, which use the defense system of our organism to fight pathogens earned a Nobel Prize in 2018 and have already helped multiple people around the world
- Generally, number of the cancer survivors has doubled over the past 40 years – as a more specific example, American Lung Association reports that the survival rate of lung cancer patients in the United States increased by 26% over just the past 10 years!
Therefore, even though some types of this horrible group of diseases are still frustratingly difficult to treat, the advancements of 21st century’s research hold great promise for future cancer treatment development. Let’s see what new discoveries scientists will present to the world in the field of cancer treatment in the coming years.