Of course, the statistics are grim. This year, 564,800 Americans are expected to die of cancer: that’s more than 1,500 people a day. It is the #2 national killer, right behind heart disease. Amazingly, there are 8 million Americans alive today with some history of cancer. Men have a 1 in 2 risk for developing cancer in their lifetime – for women, it’s 1 in 3. 14% of diagnosed women will die this year from breast cancer – for men, it’s 29% from lung cancer.
As a dual breast cancer survivor, I have a vested interest in the progress being made – or not – in finding a way to halt this scourge. Over the past two years, I have not only personally had cancer, but have lost four friends: each to a different form of the killer. I am so so tired of getting the news that someone else has lost the struggle; that we will never see them again. Cancer recognizes no boundaries and has no respect for celebrity: it can hit anyone, from the great( Ted Kennedy) to the small. And whether or not you survive is up to a roll of metastasizing dice. In other words, it’s a crapshoot.
Are there lifestyle changes you can make to increase your odds? Obviously, stop smoking. And don’t drink and smoke in excess. Yes, heavy drinking can lead to cancer of the mouth, throat, liver, voice box, and esophagus.  Try not to become obese (36% of adult Americans are). Don’t eat crap, especially red meat, preserved meat, and salt. Don’t expose yourself excessively to the sun, since ultraviolet rays can lead to melanoma. Avoid intravenous drug use, as hepatitis B and C are major causes of liver cancer. Stay away from known carcinogens: asbestos, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and nickel. Get some goddamn exercise, since physical inactivity is linked to 30% of all colon, endometrial, kidney, and esophageal cancers, as well as 30% of breast cancers in older women.
Of course, cancer treatment itself may cause further cancer, as with radiation. I had thirty-five sessions, and really not much of a choice. It might not surprise you that the top 16 countries for cancer are all in the West: in other words, the US, and Europe. It is here that we’ve developed the sophistication of a toxic, polluted environment; a culture where everyone sits on their ass, eating Pringles and playing video games; and a capitalist economy utterly unconcerned with preserving health.
But here’s the important question: are there any bright shining treatments peeking over the horizon? As a matter, of fact, yes. Let’s examine the future of chemo. Right now, these drugs permeate the entire body, and that’s why your hair falls out (to chemo, a fast-growing cell is a fast-growing cell). This therapy evolved from World War I and the then-legal toxin of mustard gas. It is on an attack and destroy mission, and if the organism is killed in the process. . .oh well. The next phase of chemo may very well be targeted, or personal therapy: “It is hoped that information about a patient’s proteomic, genetic and metabolic profile could be used to tailor medical care to that individual’s needs.” From Medicine’s mouth to God’s ears!!
Genetic research may very well point the way to a cure. There is a new treatment which helps to persuade the immune system to destroy cancer cells. So far, it’s been shown to shrink or cure human breast, ovary, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate tumors that have been transplanted into mice.
Irving Weissman, one of the researchers, explains: “What we’ve shown is that CD47 isn’t just important on leukemias and lymphomas. It’s on every single human primary tumor that we tested… We showed that even after the tumor has taken hold, the antibody can either cure the tumor or slow its growth and prevent metastasis.” His group has just been granted $20 million to begin human testing.
A 2010 Cal Tech study has shown that nanoparticles (talk about science fictional!) can adhere to proteins associated with cancer, deliver medication, and turn off these bad proteins. It’s called RNA interference and has been proved to work on people. Go, Cal Tech, go!
Perhaps the most amazing potential cure was refined by a 17-year-old high school student who won the national Siemens science contest and its $100,000 prize. She deserves it.
Her theory is to mix cancer medicine in a polymer that would attach to nanoparticles — which would then attach to cancer cells and show up on an MRI. Doctors could then see exactly where the tumors are. Then she thought that if you aimed an infrared light at the tumors to melt the polymer and release the drugs, you could kill cancer cells without harming the healthy ones. She has already proven her theory on mice.
There’s another drug called DCA which kills cancer cells by disrupting the way they metabolize sugar, causing them to commit suicide. Yet here, as always, is the problem: it is a common, cheap drug, and not patentable. Says Pharmacologist Omudhome Ogbru: “Profit is the incentive for the risk that the company takes. Without the promise of a reasonable profit, there is very little incentive for any company to develop new drugs.” Even though DCA has caused three patients to go into total remission from “incurable” cancers. Naturally, this was in Canada not the money-mad U.S.
Not to be outdone, Israel is experimenting with a drug originally developed for stroke patients to kill cancerous cells.  The Susan G. Komen Foundation has given tens of millions to promote research into BRCA1 & 2 mutations (the hereditary genes which cause breast cancer). Since BC spreads to other organs 25% of the time, Komen is also investing in studying metastasies at the genetic level.
So it’s not like Science is standing around playing with its Petri dishes. All over the world, researchers are trying to beat the Big C with swords made of molecular steel. Someday, one of them will succeed. Wouldn’t it be nice if they took the Dr. Salk approach and refused to issue a patent? As Salk remarked about his polio vaccine, “Could you patent the sun?” Here in the U.S., they’ll try. Unless the discoverer is herself a cancer survivor.