When it comes to a cure for cancer, I freely state my bias: I am extremely skeptical.
I think I come by the skepticism honestly. My newsfeed is, now and then, occasionally inundated with people linking to the new cure for cancer – with optimism, excitement, amazement, and finally sadness and suspicion when it doesn’t pan out.
Conspiracy theories aside, there is actually one real, terrible reason why every promising cure for cancer has ended up fizzling out: cancer is a complex, extraordinarily intricate disease that defies almost any conventional or traditional method medicine has yet devised to defeat it. Medicine has made great strides in the past hundred years, successfully combating diseases that killed thousands or even tens of thousands a century prior: common infection, polio, and even tuberculosis are all relics of a distant past, cured with the advancement of modern medicine.
But throughout it all cancer has remained our Everest, that unconquerable monstrosity that we have yielded to again and again.
But we may not have to yield any longer.
Throughout it all cancer has remained our Everest, that unconquerable monstrosity that we have yielded to again and again.
But we may not have to yield any longer.
I ran across this VICE documentary the other day and I initially treated it with the same eye-rolling skepticism that I normally treat every article about a cure for cancer that happens along my Facebook feed.
But I watched it, and something occurred to me: this wasn’t like every other “cure for cancer” post that had passed along my news feed. These scientists weren’t talking about curing cancer in the theoretical sense: they had actually cured cancer.
Let that sink in: these cancers were actually cured.
These scientists weren’t talking about curing cancer in the theoretical sense: they had actually cured cancer.
So the monster now has reason to fear. We have been terrorized for so long by it, watched it take those we love bit by bit, that terrible sword of Damocles hanging over their heads the moment they are diagnosed.
And the best part is? We may just slay the monster of cancer using its brethren – the other viruses that have so long afflicted us.
The way this cure for cancer works is ingenious: it uses genetically modified viruses to attack the cancer. Essentially, the scientists take a virus – some of the ones they’ve used include HIV, cold, and measles viruses – and reprogram them to attack the cancer. Instead of attacking healthy cells, like these viruses normally do, the scientists make sure they attack only the cancer cells. These newly virtuous viruses actually help the body’s immune system, fighting off the cancer and sending it into remission.
This might sound theoretical or something out of science fiction, but it’s not. It’s called T-cell therapy, and it’s been successfully used to cure patients. Dr. Carl June, the doctor who helped cure Emily Whitehead, one of the centerpieces of the VICE documentary, has used his T-cell therapy on 39 children – and 90% of them are in complete remission.
This might sound theoretical or something out of science fiction, but it’s not. It’s been successfully used to cure patients.
Just think about that for a second: 36 children who had leukemia had it go into complete remission. That’s not only a higher rate than chemotherapy, it also has none of the side effects that can severely degrade a cancer patient’s quality of life.
And it’s not just leukemia: the doctors have also successfully cured multiple myeloma and a brain tumor, among others. From Ottawa to Houston, independent doctors at different cutting-edge research laboratories are using the same kind of therapy to treat cancer.
That said, we haven’t won the war against cancer. Cancer is still a crafty and ingenious disease. This treatment, for example, works extremely well against cancers like myeloma and leukemia – cancers like lung, breast, or colon cancer are tougher to treat than myeloma or leukemia.
And each of these doctors stresses that these are still very experimental treatments, with very small sample sizes. Of course, there is no doubt that these treatments have proven very effective, achieving insanely high remission rates with little side effects. But it remains to be seen if this type of treatment can be scaled to more people and to different types of cancer.
We are still at war, but T-cell therapy represents an important battle of that war won: for the first time, we have a possible treatment regimen that not only seems to work but also does not degrade the quality of life of its recipients. The fact that it’s working, and that these doctors and scientists are so optimistic about it, is a very good signal.
for the first time, we have a possible treatment regimen that not only seems to work but also does not degrade the quality of life of its recipients.
That said, this strain of cautious optimism is a really good sign from the scientific community: multiple doctors and scientists from the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland clinic, and the American Cancer Society have all said that if these clinical trials go well the T-cell therapy could be available to the general public in as soon as five years.
Now, that may seem far away. But that’s incredible. No, forget that: that’s amazing. Groundbreaking. A medical marvel. In as little as five years, it’s possible that we will have found successful, consistent treatment for one of the most dangerous and deadly diseases that has ever afflicted humanity.
So actually? I’d say five years is pretty damn fast.
In as little as five years, it’s possible that we will have found successful, consistent treatment for one of the most dangerous and deadly diseases that has ever afflicted humanity.
I ran across an article a few months ago that stuck with me. In it, the author was doing history research of his family tree. He discovered an article, a faded black and white old scan of an even older newspaper from Rockaway Beach. It was about his great-uncle. He was a firefighter, and he was cut when a heavy brass hose nozzle fell on him. The injury wasn’t that severe – but infection set in. He was rushed to the hospital, but the doctors could do nothing for him. He died in March 1938.
Five years later, penicillin was discovered.
A lot can happen in five years. So yes, cancer is still our Everest: that indomitable monstrosity, that looming, towering figure that we cannot scale. But we are at the base, and we have placed our picks, and we will make it to the top.
For a long time, Everest was considered unconquerable. Until now, cancer has been considered incurable.
And yet… Even Everest was scaled in the end.