Cancer is fucking shit. If you made everyone rank the top three things they wanted removed from the world, it'd probably make every list. The Big C has taken at least one person that you knew and loved from you, maybe fast and unexpectedly, maybe devastatingly slowly.
With all the technological advances in the world—sex robots reaching levels of artificial intelligence, Oculus Rift immersing you on magical planes of existence, digital tattoos that can be removed quicker than it took to get your very real regrettable tramp stamp—it seems increasingly odd that cancer, among the many fatal illnesses and diseases in the world, hasn't met its match. Surely if many of the greatest minds on the planet are dedicated to finding out how to beat it, we'd have answers by now?
Billions of dollars from across the globe via charities and governments have been pumped into cancer research projects in an effort to find this elusive end-all cure. Every now and then we'll be thrown a bone from the mainstream news about how we're getting closer to finding the truth: how there's now a countdown to a eureka-moment, how there's yet another small breakthrough on a specific type of cancer. But where's the real change? To try to understand what's going on in those labs and why we're still waiting after about a million years, I called Professor Peter Johnson, Chief Clinician at Cancer Research UK.
VICE: Hi Peter. Why do you think we haven't "cured" cancer yet?
Professor Peter Johnson: How much do you know about cancer and cancer biology? Not very much.
There's not just one thing called cancer, there are many different illnesses which are cancers. Cancer can start in any cell in any area of the body. They all behave differently; even cancer that starts in the same place can behave differently. Breast cancers, for example, can behave very differently in different women. So, because there's not one thing called cancer, there's never going to be one cure. We already "cure" a lot of people; most are cured because they get medical help when the cancer is quite small. Some are cured using radiotherapy. Some are cured with chemotherapy. All the time, we're coming up with new types of treatment so we can cure more people.
How hard will it be to find all the cures?
Because there are so many, we're going to have to treat them in many different ways. We continue to make progress year on year so we do keep approaching that time, slowly. I don't know when there will be a time when we can treat all cancers effectively but I do know that we have a lot of progress to make.
Okay, so which are the big nuts to crack?
We research many types (we're the only charity in the UK that does) and the most interesting development in the past few years is treatment which gets the immune system to recognize cancer cells that are very difficult to treat. Lung cancer is one of the ones that is extremely difficult to treat or cure and that's probably because many people develop all sorts of mutations in the DNA of the cancer which makes it very difficult to treat with what we have, like radiotherapy and chemotherapy. And mostly it gets picked up at a stage where it's already spread too far to be removed for an operation.
What do you need to solve this? Is it just a funding thing?
We can always use more funding to speed up progress. The more money, the more people we can employ to put on the problem. But it's partly hindered by the speed at which science has gone and our how our knowledge goes forward. There are lots of different things but there's no doubt at all that money would be a great accelerator.
Hypothetically when do you see a time at which cancer is curable, full stop?
If you were diagnosed with cancer 40 years ago, only 25 percent could expect to be alive five to ten years after the time of diagnosis. A couple of years ago, we passed the 50 percent mark. These days, of people who are told they have cancer, about half of them will see five or ten years go by. Cancer Research UK's mission is to speed up progress so that in another 20 years time, we'll be telling 75 percent of people that they can expect to be alive ten years later.
How much are you looking into ways of preventing cancer from happening completely in the first place?
One of the areas we're increasingly focusing on is prevention. We know that most cancers are happening because of cigarettes and ideally we'd get people to just stop smoking. We also know for sure that certain other lifestyle choices or factors greatly increase the risk of cancers—we're getting more overweight as a population for example. We estimate 40 percent of cancers are caused by lifestyle. A large part of that is lack of exercise, diets high in saturated fat and red meat, and cigarettes and really not enough people appreciate that. Being overweight doesn't just put you at risk of blood disease, diabetes and so on—it really greatly increases your risk of getting cancer.
So, part of the cure in a sense has to be a lifestyle rehaul?
There's a phenomenal amount people can do to help themselves. We're at the stage now that over our lifetimes, people who were born in the 1960s or later, 1 in 2 of us are going to get cancer. We can cut those risks down by not doing all those things mentioned. The other thing is as soon as there are unexplained pains, passing blood in our water or poo, we get medical treatment. We're not good enough at seeing the doctor in the UK. We're not good enough at recognizing cancer, either. So we get diagnosed too late.
Is it basically natural that we're getting cancer because we're just living too long?
Yeah, you're absolutely right with your question. Cancer is an illness that gets more common as we get older so as we're an aging population, we're seeing more cases of cancer. People used to die of simple infections, for example, the Great Flu Epidemic of 1919 killed many with pneumonia. We don't see that now because we can fight it. The same with people getting heart attacks young: now we understand that. As we've aged, the risk of other illnesses and disease has gone down, while the risk of cancer has disproportionately gone up. Cancer is about the damage of cells and that gets worse as we get older. Your chances go up.
Is something like cancer at all a natural way for our population to stay at a reasonable level? Will there always be something like cancer?
I'm not quite sure I'd put it that way but what we would like to do is stop people dying young and the loss of life from cancer is the biggest cause of premature death in the UK. Although it is something that happens as we get older, it happens a lot in younger people as well and I think we should be trying to stop people dying young. Of course, everyone dies but not everyone has to die from something. Plus it doesn't have to be from cancer and it doesn't have to be in your 30s, 40s, 50s.
So finally, hypothetically, what would happen if we cured cancer?
What we've seen over the past 100 years is that life expectancy has gone up and people are living longer, healthier lives. Then, unfortunately during the end of everyone's lives they have a period of bad illness. Obviously there'll always be new things catching up with you but this could change.
Okay, thanks Peter.
It's worth mentioning that there are plenty of people who think that delays in finding these cures (along with the cures for many other illnesses) are down to governments and pharmaceutical companies profiting off the cancer industry. Cancer Research UK have debunked this in a post if you'd like to read more.
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