Why there can never be just one cure for cancer.

In my previous article, I discussed the difficulty in navigating medical information on social media and distinguishing fact from fiction. In particular, there tends to be a strong focus on cancer. Disturbingly, I have seen many posts claiming that chemotherapy is poison, that it does not work and that it should never be used. This is often accompanied by claims of a miracle fruit or herb that can cure any cancer.

Before I discuss the problems with such claims, I think it is important to discuss what cancer actually is (and isn’t). Cancer occurs when some of the body cells start to divide uncontrollably. In healthy cells, cell division is a tightly controlled process that is essential for normal body functions. In cancer, mutations to the DNA, and especially to genes that control the life cycle of a cell, result in uncontrolled cell division, such that a single cancer cell quickly multiplies into many cells. Cancers differ based on the body part they originate from. Lung cancer is very different to breast cancer, which is very different to blood cancers. This is why cancer is not a single disease – rather the word cancer refers to a broad group of cancers that are all very different to each other. This is why it is incorrect to talk about a single cure for cancer. Each cancer is so different from the next that they need their own specific targeted treatments and medications.

There are some treatments for cancer that are used as a general first line defence – such as chemotherapy. Chemotherapy works by killing rapidly dividing cells, such as cancers. Unfortunately, it also causes damage to other rapidly dividing cells in the body, causing strong side effects. Some people will use these side effects to argue against the use of chemotherapy completely. While there is no denying that chemotherapy can be difficult, for many cancers it remains the best treatment options and has an excellent success rate. Unfortunately, for other cancers it does not work as well. However, a specialist is the best person to determine whether chemotherapy will be the right treatment for a specific patient, not a random Facebook page.

So what about claims that chemotherapy should be abandoned in favour of nature therapies? There is evidence that some natural compounds from plant based sources can kill cancer cells in a petri dish. The truth is, killing cancer cells in a petri dish is very easy. Killing cancer inside a person is much more difficult, for many complex reasons, including accessibility to the tumour and intolerable drug doses. A petri dish is a very different environment to the human body, and until such compounds have been proven to work for specific cancers in actual humans, it is wrong and potentially life threatening to rely on such measures instead of conventional treatments recommended by your specialist.

Finally, prevention is better than cure. Cancer is not a result of modern lifestyles – there is evidence of cancers occurring thousands of years ago. However, many aspects of modern lifestyles contribute significantly to increased risk of some kinds of cancers. We know that smoking causes lung cancer, that excess sun exposure can lead to the development of skin cancers, and excess drinking can lead to liver cancer. Obesity and diabetes are also risk factors. You can help reduce your risk by a eating healthy diet rich in plant based foods, avoiding smoking and drinking, and being sun smart. Remember, while this might help reduce your risk of cancer, it cannot eliminate it.

This is because there are factors linked to cancer that are independent of lifestyle. Genetics is a major risk factor for some kinds of cancers. Perhaps most well known is that mutations in the gene BRCA1 can dramatically increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers in women. In these cases, the risk of developing cancers runs in the family and extreme preventative measures, including mastectomy and hysterectomy can be required.

In summary, remember that cancer is not one disease. Be wary of claims that a single food or compound can cure all cancer types, and of treatments that aren’t tailored for a specific cancer diagnosis. If you do choose to use natural therapies along side your conventional medical treatment, always inform your doctor as certain natural therapies might be incompatible with other medications you might be prescribed.

Below are some interesting links for those interested in further reading:

What is cancer?

What is chemotherapy?

Lifestyle and cancer.