Illustration by Sanithna Phansavanh

Defining the End of Cancer

The epic quest to figure out an end to cancer and what that could look like

By American Cancer Society Editors

Cancer is practically as old as life. Dinosaurs had cancer. Trees get cancer. Right now, all of us have some cells with the potential to cause cancer, though they usually get destroyed before becoming a problem.

Scientists have been on an epic quest to eliminate cancer for centuries, but given its prevalence, cancer is probably here to stay. “Saying ‘the end of cancer’ is motivating, but it’s probably not realistic,” says Richard Wender, MD, chief cancer control officer for the American Cancer Society (ACS). “It’s an aspirational statement for me. It’s something we work toward.”

However, there are other ways to think about the end of cancer: The end of fear of cancer; the end of pain, suffering, and death from cancer; the end of cancer as an inevitable disease. Wender points out that up to half of all cancer deaths could be prevented. And for cancers that can’t be cured, improved treatments could “enable us to peacefully coexist with our cancer for a long time,” says Otis Brawley, MD, FACP, ACS chief medical officer.

In some cancers progress has been significant. The 5-year survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common type of childhood cancer, was about 10% in the early 1960s; now it’s 90%. Several adult cancers, such as testicular cancer and melanoma, also have a high survival rate. But in other cancers, like lung and pancreas, progress has been far slower.

Of course, there’s still much to discover about the causes and mechanisms of cancer, and we don’t know what we don’t know. Biochemist Bruce Alberts, PhD, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, makes the point abundantly clear.

“I have been writing a cell biology textbook since 1978, so I keep track of what happens every five years. It’s astounding how ignorant we were in each previous edition of some of the important aspects of life,” Alberts says, referring to Molecular Biology of the Cell.

“We used to think cells were containers full of randomly mixed biological molecules, but nothing could be further from the truth. Everything inside of a cell is highly organized, and actually in only the last five years or so have we begun to realize how that works.”
WATCH: Cancer & the Chemistry of Life: It’s Complicated.

Course correction has always been a part of science, and it ultimately moves cancer researchers forward on their quest. They follow different paths: In this publication, we’ll feature some highlights in the areas of epigenetics, technology, treatment, and prevention — but they’re all working to arrive at the same place: the end of cancer as we know it.

What will it take to finally get there? Read through to find out>

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