Together we will beat cancer

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This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Science Surgery

Our Science Surgery series answers your cancer science questions.

If you have a question that you’d like us to answer, send it to us using the email address at the bottom of this post.

Victoria asked: “Will cancer ever be eradicated completely?”

We’ve already written about whether all cancers will ever be curable, which you can read about here. But wiping out cancer completely is another kettle of fish.

Here’s why.

Is cancer preventable?

1979 was an important year for world health. Smallpox – a disease that had plagued the planet for some 3,000 years – was declared eradicated. 30 years later, the world officially waved goodbye to a second disease: rinderpest, which affected animals and livestock.

Alongside a lengthy global effort, there was another crucial factor behind these success stories. Both diseases were preventable.

They were caused by viruses. And scientists developed vaccines against them. Viruses are parasites and can’t survive on their own; they need a ‘host’ to hitchhike on. By using an effective vaccine to stop people and animals from getting infected, the viruses couldn’t keep going on earth. So, they disappeared.

The key difference here is that, unlike smallpox and rinderpest, cancers don’t have a single cause, and not all cases are preventable.

“We suspect that around 40% of cancers are preventable, through changes like not smoking, drinking less alcohol and keeping a healthy weight,” says Professor Richard Martin, a Cancer Research UK-funded expert on cancer prevention at the University of Bristol.

Obesity weight lifestyle cancer

Keeping a healthy weight can help cut your risk of cancer.

“It may well be that some of the remaining 60% are down to factors in our environment that we don’t yet know about, but many will be caused by genetic changes that happen by chance.”

That means a significant chunk of cancers could be prevented by altering different aspects of our lives. But Martin also sees this knowledge as a further opportunity to cut cancer rates.

“Looking at lifestyle factors is of great interest, because we can then think of ways to make it easy for people to make changes,” he says. “But if we can understand the mechanisms underpinning convincing causes of cancer, then we could probably go some way to preventing other cancers too.”

Martin points out the example of aspirin, which is now being looked at as a potential way to prevent several different cancers – including by our scientists. Aspirin is an anti-inflammatory drug. And it was the discovery that long-term inflammation is linked with cancer, for example through obesity, that drove scientists to test this idea out.

What about genetics?

Since many cancers are caused by factors out of our control, such as genetic mistakes that happen when a cell copies itself, preventing these seems more in the realms of science-fiction than possibility – at least with today’s understanding and medicine.

A more feasible alternative could be to stop cancers from progressing.

For many scientists, the ‘holy grail’ of cancer research is to develop a simple, one-size-fits-all test that could pick up the earliest warning signs of cancer. A popular vision would be to use such a test in the general population, to pick up cancers at early stages, before they cause symptoms, and before they become difficult to treat.

It’s not just about detecting cancers, it’s detecting cancers that matter.

– Prof Richard Martin, Cancer Research UK

The idea would then be to intervene quickly, for example with surgery or drugs, and nip the problem in the bud. But this relies on many things. The test would have to be accurate enough to not give false results in healthy people, so that people who don’t have cancer aren’t given treatments they don’t need. It would also need to be able to tell exactly where the developing cancer is in the body, so that the right treatment can be chosen.

Martin also highlights another issue: overdiagnosis.

“It’s not just about detecting cancers, it’s detecting cancers that matter, and not identifying cancers or cancerous changes that may never go on to cause harm.

“That’s becoming the increasing problem.”

Despite suggestive headlines, such a test doesn’t yet exist.

Long story short

So, what’s the take-home message? Martin sums it up for us: “Cancer isn’t completely preventable, so we can’t prevent all cancers. But it’s not just about prevention; it’s about reducing the burden of cancer when it’s there.

“And we’re making great progress.”

Justine

We’d like to thank Victoria for asking us this question. If you’d like to ask us something, email sciencesurgery@cancer.org.uk, leaving your first name and location (optional).

Comments

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Andy August 7, 2018

Iam hoping that all cancers will be eradicated but iam hoping most of all prostate cancer gets a cure as soon as possible I have had it now for over 2 half years now that has spread to my bones & my spine so I have been in pains every day since it took everything from me at the time my job & most of all my relationship with my partner because I was in so much pain I pushed her away & I started to sleep on the sofa then we drifted apart & I moved out but we have been back together now for about 7 months we have been taking it easy & now we are looking to move in with each other again but she can’t move in with me as iam living with my mother & there is not enough room for everyone as there is my partner & 3 kids & one of my daughter’s is pregnant she has it in December & I can not move in with her as her house is really bad all the rooms are full of damp & only 2 Windows open in the hole house the roof leaks & now it leaks into my daughter’s room & now the landlord want her out as she refused to sort housing benefit out till he did the repairs so as you can see iam so stressed & depressed everyday

TM August 5, 2018

There is evidence that vegans have very low rates of cancer. Why isn’t this researched and proven fact mentioned here?

Christina August 4, 2018

My cousin has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She has been told there is no treatment available to her.
Had this been detected earlier would she have been able to get better. She has been told they can only provide end of life care.
Can this be right? i only saw her at the end of June.

Barbara Fox August 4, 2018

I lost my mum and brother to cancer unfortunately I personally don’t think all cancers will be curable my mum had small cell lung cancer my brother had secondary pancreatic cancer which Spread throughout his body within weeks of diagnosis and I personally feel if there was ever a cure for them all made only the selective few would be granted as they are too expensive for nhs patients 😢

Anders Jørgensen July 25, 2018

Having lost both my parents to cancer I hope there will be a cure to end it all some day. Still my dad was a heavy cigar smoker for quite some years which would explain that one.