Uncomfortable Yet Unavoidable Truth About Cancer
- Date : 18-12-31
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In his State of the Union Address in 2016, then U.S. President Barack Obama announced another war on cancer. There was even an emotional moment when he assigned his vice president, Joe Biden, who had just lost his 47-year old son to a brain tumor, head of “mission control.” Ever since Richard Nixon announced his administration’s war on cancer and signed the National Cancer Act in 1971, America has led the global effort in developing remarkable technologies for treating cancer. Unfortunately, almost 50 years later, we are witnessing more and more people suffering from the illness.
Cancer is no longer someone else’s business since one out of two people will ultimately be diagnosed with it. We find ourselves shocked when someone close has cancer, but if you think about it, having cancer is hardly surprising. A sperm and egg fertilize in a mother’s womb to become a single cell. Over the next nine months, that cell becomes a human being with trillions of cells. It is astounding that one cell can multiply into that many cells in such a short period - and cancer cells are no different.
Despite such an active proliferating capacity, trillions of cells exist harmoniously with one another, which is a miracle indeed. In fact, we should be surprised to see our cells not turning into cancer cells or causing any trouble. In an era of longevity, we have to accept the uncomfortable truth that, just like death, cancer is a natural phenomenon we cannot avoid. But the suffering and fear of cancer is simply too great to accept it gracefully.
When diagnosed with diabetes or hypertension, we simply remind ourselves to be cautious and take care of ourselves. They are, after all, conditions we can control by taking drugs. This leads to the question: why can’t treating cancer be more like treating hypertension? Can’t cancer be something we can deal with through treatment, even if more complex or painful? Treatment for chronic diseases such
as hypertension and diabetes control the function of cells. Cancer treatment, on the other hand, aims to kill the cancer cells. Treatment for cancer until now has involved injecting as much of the targeting drugs as the patient could tolerate. As a side effect of this process, normal cells are also attacked, often causing considerable pain to the patients. Furthermore, despite such drastic treatments, cancer cells frequently survive. A living organism’s nature to survive and reproduce is the reason why it is so difficult to eradiate cancer.
Looking at a cancer cell as a living organism makes it easy to understand this. Just like any microorganism, a cancer cell constantly undergoes cell division, and if its environment changes, it will do all it can to adjust to the changes through mutation. An example of this is the endless arms race between researchers developing antibiotics and viruses resisting them. Likewise, we are witnessing a neverending
arms race between cancer treatments and cancer cells. If we view viruses as something we can never eradicate, perhaps we can also view cancer in terms of coexistence rather than something we need to conquer.
Yet we are faced with another uncomfortable truth. A person entirely cured of cancer is two to three times more likely to be diagnosed again with cancer compared to those with no cancer history. The more advanced cancer treatments become, the longer people will live, and this increases the number of people who are highly likely to develop cancer again. This leads to a contradiction that the more we develop
technologies to eradicate cancer, the more we are likely to be diagnosed with it. We have to realize the inevitable truth that since all our body cells can potentially become cancer cells, we must learn to live not only with healthy cells, but also those that go rogue.
The reason President Obama once again announced a war on cancer is because carcinogenic strategies using the immune system had started to show results. Despite remarkable progress, however, immunotherapy has so far been effective against only a few forms of cancer and in less than 30% of patients treated. Many patients are still left with no effective cure. So the conclusion must be, while there is a ray of hope, the light is still too weak and we must accept the notion of living with the disease as we continue to search for ways to improve treatments.