Several months ago, President Obama announced what he termed a “moonshot” type of program to finally conquer cancer. An admirable idea, and let me go on record as saying I’m all for it. It’s being called a moonshot because we’re spending billions of dollars to achieve an easily visualized goal, like landing a man on the moon. But cancer, being the type of disease it is, is not going to be easy to conquer. Over the past fifty years or so, cancer has, in some of its forms, been conquered partially already. A diagnosis of cancer used to be a death sentence; now it frequently isn’t. Some forms are deadly in many instances, some forms have a death rate of only around 10 to 20%. I’m certainly not an expert on cancer, but I understand much about the disease, and regardless of how much money we spend on trying to conquer cancer, I can say it won’t be easy, and it may not do what the cancer experts and politicians hope it will.
Cancer is a disease of individual cells. Something goes wrong inside a cell and it changes. Normally, most (but not all) cells don’t divide by mitosis much at all. Only rarely do they divide, usually to repair an injury or to take the place of a dead cell. Some exceptions are the blood-forming cells, which make the red and white cells of the blood. But even those are closely regulated, and they don’t just go off on their own and divide rapidly like a cancer. In other words, cells in a body, human or otherwise, don’t just divide unchecked. The process of division is kept under very close control by processes known and unknown within each cell. In cancer, a cell gets free of these normal processes, and it begins to grow wild, unchecked and unregulated. Many things can stimulate a cell to go cancerous: sunlight, chemicals in the environment, chemicals in cigarette smoke—the list goes on and on. Genetics can play a role. Some genes make cells more susceptible to turning cancerous. Some cancers are caused by viruses, which invade from outside. So, there are a large number of different types of cancer, and the term “cancer” covers one helluva big area. All in all, cancer is a very complex disease, and it isn’t any wonder it has taken so long to get a good handle on it.
But now we understand much better how cancer works, and a cancer “moonshot” at this stage may be a good idea. But still, don’t get the idea that cancer will be conquered within the next few years, or even ten or twenty. As I said above, I’m all for it. But cancer has outsmarted us before. It can, and probably will, do it again.
I’m not sure exactly how this “conquering” is supposed to work. Are they going to eradicate cancer from the earth? Unlikely. Or just cure one form? More likely. Considering how cancer starts, in just one cell, curing is problematic. A cure can only be done if all the cancer cells—and I mean all—are either killed or removed from the body of the person with the disease. That’s hard to do, since one or a few cancer cells can stick around undetected. Eradicating cancer totally from the earth, as though it were an infectious disease, may never work. Cancer is spontaneous, arising from within a cell. In any event, spending large sums of money can do a lot of good toward “conquering” cancer, or at least learning more about it, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t.