No, there is not a cure for cancer. Sadly, there probably won’t be a complete cure for a very long time – if ever. To understand why, we first need to make a short journey into the world of bacteria…
Sometime in the 1960s, Dr. William H. Stewart, pediatrician, public health doctor, and then the Surgeon General of the United States of America (the ‘top doc’ in the U.S. government) supposedly said: “it is time to close the book on infectious disease”. He thought that humanity’s war on infections, more specifically bacteria, was over, and humans had won a comprehensive victory – thanks to the wonder of antibiotics. Back then, it seemed that antibiotics could ‘cure’ all bacterial infections. We now know who actually won and who is still winning (hint: it’s not humans).
One of the reasons this triumph never came about is evolution: like all living things, infectious pathogens (bacteria and viruses) adapt when faced with a threat to their existence. Through genetic changes (mutations), bacteria eventually evolve to become resistant to our weapons – making our antibiotics useless.
We have also come to realise that the same process occurs in many types of cancer cells. They can mutate, adapt to our weapons, and outwit our best medicines. With every new therapy, the cancer cells can often evolve and outfox us in the long run. For this reason, chemotherapy does not always completely cure someone of cancer.
It gets even trickier. There are many different types of cancer and places in the body where each type can occur. Each cancer type has different molecules and defence mechanisms (many of which are yet to be discovered). So the task of finding a cure for cancer – a panacea for every type of cancer – is so massive in scope that our target for a cure is still a long way off.
Question from Sarah Begum via Facebook
Answer by Artem Cheprasov
Footnote: Since there is no record to prove Dr. Stewart’s infamous utterance, many people believe he never said such a stupid thing. The phrase’s meaning nevertheless reflected the then popular viewpoint of final human triumph over nature.
Image source: Flickr by Pulpolux