FAQs about cancer: What is it and why is it so hard to cure?

There’s currently an overload of information online and it’s difficult to figure out what’s true and what’s not. After discussing this topic with friends, family and patients, I thought it would be helpful in this blog to clarify some frequently asked questions surrounding cancer and while I’m at it, I might also debunk a few myths. To bring you up to speed, I will avoid going into too much scientific detail in this first cancer-related blog post. I have to add that as a cancer researcher I always tend to err on the side of caution and don’t like making sweeping statements or conclusions. Let me know if you think this was helpful or whether you’d rather want a different question answered.

What is cancer?

Our body is made out of billions of cells. Usually, these cells are working for us and operate on a ‘biological programme’ that makes them obey certain rules. This biological programme makes sure that cells with too many mistakes stop growing, are flagged up in the body and are cleaned up by our immune system. As we age there’s more time to accumulate mistakes. Normally this isn’t worrying since an excess of mistakes usually triggers the ‘stop growing programme’, preventing a future cancer from ever developing. However, when the perfect combination of mistakes occurs in 1 particular cell, this can damage the ‘stop growing programme’, allowing the cell to keep on growing without a brake. In other words, cancer originates from your own body and (generally) stems from a single cell gone wild that disobeys the checks and balances encoded in its biological programme.

That said, when we talk about cancer, we are actually referring to the whole collection of known cancers that can arise from the many different tissues that are present in a human body. For example, lung cancer has very different properties compared to brain cancer. You can therefore imagine that the different types of cancers arise through different ways (mechanisms) and are therefore often treated differently by medical doctors.

I have to admit this is a very crude explanation, but if it’s helpful, another post can go over this in more detail.

If we can put a man on the moon, why can we still not cure cancer?

The challenge of tackling cancer is to kill the cancer cells without killing the patient. Unfortunately, cancer cells are in many ways, highly similar to our other healthy cells in our body. An additional difficulty is that a cancer exists out of millions of cells that each can be slightly different from each other, creating groups of cancer cells with different properties and sensitivities to cancer treatments. A particular treatment might eradicate a large proportion of the cancer, but that minority of cancer cells resistant to the treatment can grow back and kill the patient. In other words, the cancer evolves according to the treatment, essentially creating a moving target.

There are many specific ways through which a cancer might defy (resist) a particular cancer therapy. Over the decades, cancer researchers have uncovered several hundreds of these different routes to resistance. I’m thinking of writing a bit more about how cancer can become resistant to therapies in several upcoming posts. Stay tuned if that might interest you!  

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