A (Natural) Cure for Cancer?
- Currently, a number of cancers can be cured.
- Most doctors prefer not to talk in terms of cure; rather they use the word “remission” (complete or partial).
- Many more cancer treatments are now available than there were even a decade ago.
- Cancer is increasingly being considered a chronic disease to be managed over time. Some consider this a cure of sorts.
- There are many who claim that “natural” cancer cures exist and should be preferred to conventional treatment. These charlatans are dangerous and to be avoided.
What do we mean by a cure for cancer, natural or otherwise?
This seems an obvious question, but some terminology is important. When most patients think about a cure for cancer they think of not having cancer anymore, i.e. it is gone from the body altogether. This is a nice simple definition but it belies the complexity of cancer.
Cancer develops as cells slowly diverge from their natural state. This typically happens over years or decades.
This however does not mean that any divergence from a normal or natural state is cancerous. In the endless cycle of cell renewal, cells are constantly diverging from their natural state. When this occurs, a number of things can happen in response: (i) the cell can repair itself; (ii) the cell can commit suicide (called apoptosis); (iii) the immune system can kill the cell; or (iv) the cell just sits there not dividing but also not doing a lot (known as senescence). Cell divergence and correction is therefore a normal process that the body deals with on a daily basis.
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It is only when these systems fail that cancer can take hold. We say that cells are cancerous when they become “malignant”. Malignancy is generally defined by two characteristics – cells continue to divide when they shouldn’t, invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body (i.e. metastasize). These are the two main characteristics of cancer – uncontrolled cell growth and the ability to move around the body.
Thus, when we talk about curing cancer, through natural means or otherwise, what we really mean is preventing these two things from occurring.
We will never prevent cells from diverging from their natural state and nor do we want to. Cell divergence has, over millions of years, provided survival advantages that have allowed humans to go from unremarkable, middle-of-the-food-chain hominids to being the dominant species on the planet. In other words, Darwinian (aka natural) evolution is a helpful byproduct of cell divergence.
Cancer can be thought of as the other side of the coin – the unhelpful byproduct of divergence.
Thus, when we talk of a cure for cancer we mean, in one sense, getting rid of the unhelpful consequences of cells diverging from their natural state. Or, put another way, all cancerous cells are gone from the body and there is no chance of them coming back
Some doctors and media also talk about a cure for cancer in a slightly different way. They say that cancer will be effectively “cured” if it can be managed by drugs and other treatments over long periods of time. Here, the cancer has not been eradicated, but modern treatments keep it from spreading and the patient can lead a normal life. This paradigm is seen in other diseases, for example, HIV where treatment advances make it manageable over decades.
What cancers can be cured?
Doctors typically don’t talk of outcomes in terms of being cured. Rather, they use the word “remission”. Being in complete remission means that no signs or symptoms of cancer can be seen, usually on a scan, but that there may still be cancerous cells in the body. Indeed, it is often the case that cancers can be in remission through drug treatment but are expected to come back as the cancer cells mutate further and become resistant to the treatment.
The longer a cancer has been in remission, the less likely it is to return. Here it is more appropriate to talk of a cure.
The cancers with the best chance of remission or cure are those that have the highest survival rates, being testicular cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, melanoma, cervical cancer, thyroid cancer, and Hodgkin lymphoma; usually when they are not advanced. Cancer is much easier to treat, and possibly cure when it is confined to a single location that can be operated on. But some cancers such as testicular cancer be cured by chemotherapy even when it is advanced.
Once cancer has spread (metastasized) it is harder to treat. Traditionally this has required systemic treatments like chemotherapy, which, except in a few cancer types such as testicular cancer and lymphoma where cure is possible, tend not to be curative.
However, more recently many new drugs and therapies have been developed that allow cancer cells to be more precisely targeted. As more and more of these treatments come to market cancer will increasingly become a chronic disease to be managed over time rather than cured. Although humanity will eventually find cures to all cancer types, getting to that point will take more time.
“Natural” cancer cures (and conspiracies)
The Internet is aflutter with talk of natural cancer cures. The story is often couched in conspiratorial terms, i.e. there are simple and natural cancer cures available but they are being suppressed by shadowy organizations, normally drug companies or corrupt authorities. In case there was any doubt – this is not true. In fact, it is preposterous.
Cancer affects the entire population, including the tens of thousands of surgeons, oncologists, doctors, nurses, and drug researchers who work daily to combat cancer. Many of them suffer from cancer, as do their families and friends. It would be a strange conspiracy indeed if thousands of unconnected people all over the world were willing to die rather than put to use the simple cures they are said to be hiding in their basements.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new. There are endless numbers of them and they lurk in the shadows of most aspects of life. Cancer, unfortunately, is no different; but where cancer does differ is that otherwise rational people are more likely to believe the conspiracies because they are vulnerable. This is particularly unfortunate given the consequences of refusing proven treatments (that can lead to a real cure) for alternative “natural cures” that are not supported by scientific evidence. These quack treatments are normally advertised by people who claim that they cured themselves “naturally” or they give examples of people who make the same claim. Unfortunately, the thousands who have died following these snake oil sellers are no longer around to refute the claims that they work. It is difficult to think of a more obvious example of availability bias.
That these “natural cures” are dangerous and to be avoided should be obvious, but if not there is recent evidence clearly showing that those who refuse conventional treatment for alternatives have worse cancer outcomes; or in other words, the quack cures do not work. That is not to say that patients cannot and should not try to improve their position by adding diet, exercise, stress management, and complementary therapies to their doctor-led treatments. Indeed, Curve is all about figuring what more patients and their family and friends can do to help themselves (see our video course for more on this).
Natural vs unnatural cancer cures
Those who promote alternative / natural cancer cures often have a belief that cancer drugs do nothing more than cause more cancer. They say that chemotherapy is unnatural; it is simply a poison that makes patients sicker than they already are. There is no doubt that, in some circumstances, chemotherapy has serious side effects, but this misses the point. Chemotherapy has passed the highest bar and has level 1 evidence to support its use. At Curve we recognize the role of chemotherapy and ‘conventional’ cancer treatment, we see our role to support and enhance these treatments, improve quality of life, and reduce the chances of recurrence.
The aim of cancer treatment is to kill the cancer or at least stop it from growing further and spreading. Whether the anticancer treatment that does this is natural or made in a lab does not matter. All that matters is how effective it is in achieving this aim. Further, whether something occurs naturally or is lab-made has little bearing on whether it is harmful. For example, drinking too much of the most “natural” of substances, water, can lead to death. Similarly, dangerous poisons like ricin occur naturally. We could give endless examples. The key point is that it is a mistake to think natural = good and unnatural = bad. What’s important is that each treatment is considered on its own merits as informed by the relevant science.