The last couple of weeks have brought much needed good news about cancer. Of course, this is cold comfort for millions of people, including myself, who has lost an old friend, a friend's son and a family member to cancer within the span of just two months.
Nevertheless, as reported in the journal Science on Aug. 31, scientists at the National Cancer Institute used gene therapy for the first time to completely cure two patients with an advanced and deadly skin cancer called melanoma.
In the journal Nature on Sept. 6, three science teams reported a major link between tumor suppression and stem cell division. And on the same day in the journal Cancer, doctors announced the continued, dramatic decline in cancer deaths, which began in the early 1990s.
These studies follow separate statements from the World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society that over half of all cancers are preventable.
Will there ever be a cure for cancer? Likely not, which is why all so-called cancer cures hawked on the Internet are at best naive and at worse criminal, relying on fear and myth to generate sales.
Myth 1: The single bullet
Cancer is a group of diseases. In the same way there is no single cure for infectious diseases, cancers have many different origins and must be treated differently.
You may have heard the terms before: carcinoma, lymphoma, sarcoma, glioma. These refer, respectively, to epithelia cancers such as skin, breast and lung; blood and bone marrow cancers; connective tissue cancers; and brain cancers. The only commonality among these cancers is rapid and uncontrollable cell division.
There have been cancer breakthroughs before, usually an understanding of what goes wrong with a protein or strand of DNA to make a cell turn cancerous. Scientists are very good at giving mice cancer.
What's exciting about the findings published in Science and Nature are their novelty. In the first, doctors implanted a gene into human white blood cells that enabled the patients' own immune system to recognize and kill the cancer cells. While the technique unfortunately didn't cure 15 of the patients, the fact that two were cured demonstrates that the technique works in principle and can perhaps be fined-tuned. Meanwhile, the Nature finding on stem cells opens up a brand new avenue for cancer intervention.
Myth 2: A modern epidemic
Another cancer misconception bandied about is that cancer is a modern-day scourge occurring with greater frequency with each passing year because of our polluted world. Cancer is ancient and affects most animals, from dinosaurs of old to modern sea creatures and dogs. Incidence rates have climbed in the United States largely because we are detecting cancer with greater accuracy and we aren't dying as much from other diseases, such as malaria.
Pollutants can cause cancer, and the most common is tobacco smoke. Radiation and industrial solvents also are clear-cut causes of cancer. But there's no way to eliminate the risk of cancer. A healthy diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices greatly reduce the risk, but sometimes, cancer happens.
Cancer is the price we pay for life and cell division. Consider that the most common cancers—breast, colon and skin—all involve organs that constantly shed and produce new cells. Breasts, for example, swell and contract with hormonal cycles. The greater the rate of division, the greater the possibility of cancer. The heart muscle rarely creates new cells, hence no heart cancer.
Myth 3: The cancer conspiracy
Another myth is that there are cheap cures, such as hydrogen peroxide, vitamin regimens or shark cartilage, that doctors don't want you to know about because they can't profit from them. That's such an inane argument that I'm surprised Oliver Stone hasn't made a conspiracy movie about it. Medical professionals dedicate their lives to find a cure, and many indeed die of cancer. They can't save themselves because cancer is complicated.
The useless book "Sharks Don't Get Cancer" did a good job in spurring the birth of the shark cartilage industry and the death of sharks. First, sharks do get cancer. Cartilage has long been known to have anti-cancer properties. Taking shark cartilage in pill form, where it dissolves in your stomach acid and never reaches a tumor, won't cure a thing. But serious research is underway in turning cartilage into medicine.
The temptation to seek alternative cancer treatments is strong. When faced with death, it is understandable you would want to try anything. And the common treatment methods—radiation and chemotherapy—are horrible and not always effective. Maybe in 50 years, with better treatments available, they will be viewed as barbaric. The problem is that alternative treatments can postpone legitimate treatment, when time is everything, or they can interfere with chemo and radiation.
Some alternative therapies have merit. The trick in finding a useful therapy is to avoid anything that claims it can cure cancer.
At best, alternative practices—such as mediation, yoga, tai chi, or massage—can help a patient cope with legitimate cancer treatment, which, as stated, is not pleasurable.
Prevention goes a long way. No one needs to die of colon cancer, which takes about 10 years to turn from polyp to cancer. A colonoscopy can spot and remove polyps. Millions of cancers would vanish if everyone stopped smoking, and millions of cancers would be prevented if we started exercising and stopped killing sharks.
Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LIveScience.
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Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.