The war on cancer: new tools, new optimism

cancer research

Cancer is actually an entire group of diseases that result from the uncontrolled growth of normal cells. Cancers are a leading cause of death, and the war against cancer is a constant battle. Rarely a day goes by without any mention of it in the media. There is almost no living person who has not had their life touched directly or indirectly through a loved one by the evil of cancer.

Cancer occurs when normal cells get damaged DNA. DNA is the blueprint for what type of cell it should be and how it should grow. Many cancer mutations are of the genes that regulate how cells grow and divide. Because mutations in cells can accumulate over time, cancer becomes more likely with age, although some cancers are common in children.

The most common types of cancer in the United States across race and gender are skin cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer and lung cancer. In their lifetimes, one in two men and one in three women will get cancer.

Many cancers have dozens of mutations. These mutations allow the cancer cells to grow without stopping and allow them to break away and travel to and invade other organs in the body (metastasis). Hereditary factors can play a part, but many mutations can come from being exposed to cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) like tobacco smoke, radiation, radon, unprotected sun exposure and other chemicals.

Most cells are good neighbors. They only divide a certain number of times over their lifetime, and if they bump into a neighbor, they stop growing. By contrast, cancer cells never stop dividing, and if they bump into a neighbor, they just keep on growing.

The real devastation of cancer comes from the fact that cancer can spread and invade multiple other areas of the body. This process is known as metastasis. When this happens, the other organs can be rendered incapable of functioning properly, leading to death.

Almost any kind of cell can become malignant (cancerous), although cancers can vary widely in their severity, growth patterns, and ability to metastasize. Liver, melanoma, and some types of brain and pancreatic cancers are among the most deadly.

Physicians have waged war on cancer using a limited number of tools. Traditionally these have included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But there is new hope on the horizon in the war against cancer.

Researchers, after many years of studying the molecular basis of cancer, are understanding and making some big strides in developing new and very optimistic cancer treatment options in the hope of one day wiping out these deadly diseases. Doctors are now analyzing the genetic defects in cancer cells to determine the very best combination of chemotherapeutic medicines to use to destroy them, almost like a “designer drug cocktail” against the cancer.

Another promising approach is to create a vaccine against the target cancer. The problem with most cancer is that because the cancer cells are part of the person, a person’s immune system does not attack them. Researchers are now finding ways to bypass this protective mechanism and are making a custom vaccine against the cancer so the person’s own immune system starts attacking and destroying the cancer within.

The most survivable cancers are those that are caught early. It is important to have regular medical exams and to contact your doctor if you notice anything odd concerning your health, including new or changing moles.

Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.