Although scientist and clinicians are excited by what is being learned about cancer, patients and families are too often frustrated by the lack of progress in prevention and treatment.
In order to understand this seeming paradox researchers have considered what has been learned about the biology of cancer and how this knowledge is being put to use.
Researchers believe that there is hope for the future, both in decreasing and individual’s lifetime risk of getting cancer and in increasing the success of treating those cancers that do arise.
Most people do not attain a higher risk of cancer from inherited genes. Instead, cancer arises as a result of mutations in the inherited genes as the body makes new cells to maintain various organs.
A recent publication suggests that these errors are an inevitable consequence of trying to copy three billion bits of information as a cell divides.
Although this may be true, it does not mean that being diagnosed with cancer is inevitable.
The fastest and most extensive rates of cell division occur when people develop as embryos. Billions upon billions of cells are produced every day. Even so, caner in newborns is extremely rare.
Conversely, cell division in each tissue slows as people age, meanwhile the incidence of cancer increases with age.
Researchers believe that an overlooked factor which may account for this discrepancy is that during pregnancy both the mother and the placenta protect the developing embryo from environmental exposure.
In contrast, we constantly put ourselves in peril as we age. We are exposed to viruses and bacteria that damage our tissues. Invading pathogens are not alone in wreaking havoc, people do most of the damage themselves. Through sunburns, smoking, environmental pollutants and overeating people are constantly damaging their tissue and forcing restorative cell proliferation to occur in a war zone of damage.
This new information is revolutionizing cancer care. Until recently, cancer was treated based on the tissue or organ in which it originated. More recently, effective cancer therapy is empowered by knowing the precise mutations a patient’s tumor as acquired, called precision medicine.
Although cancer isn’t ready to be put on the extinction list, it is clear that with more science we face a future with less fear.