Let’s stop curing cancer

Despite the best research into cancer, it still remains a generic term describing out-of-control cells, which all look different, from site to site. The diversity of cancer, still perplexes researchers and there are many unanswered questions about how cancer invades bodies, which drugs work and why cures remain elusive.

The researchers who are studying A Million Women can’t be wrong about alcohol and cancer – or can they?

Not surprisingly, attention has focused on prevention. Finding a consistent cause for every cancer and eradicating it would be ideal. Even, the direct link between smoking and lung cancer hasn’t been replicated, despite many attempts.

A new association is postulated every week between something in our environment and a particular cancer. One of the first associations was smoking and lung cancer. Not long ago it was coffee which caused any type of cancer known to occur in mice. Then there was saturated fat, which caused breast cancer.

Now it is alcohol.  Like the others that have gone before, evidence supports a causal association between alcohol consumption and cancers at a record-breaking seven sites: mouth, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and female breasts. For all these sites, the more you drink the more likely you are to get cancer.

The researchers who are studying A Million Women in the United Kingdom can’t be wrong – or can they?  When you read the fine print, the picture is not so clear. Some of the cancers found in these sites only occurred in women who also smoked.

One problem is with the way the word “cause” is used. It is given a variety of meanings, many of which are misunderstood. “Alcohol-related cancer”, for example, describes a situation where drinking and cancer occur together – but it does not mean that they are necessarily related.  “Alcohol-attributable cancer”, for example, means that alcohol is one of many factors which increase “the risk” of getting cancer. Neither of these terms mean that alcohol is directly responsible for cancer, but they are often mistakenly interpreted that way.

In fact, there are multiple possible causes for any type of disease. Rather than searching for the unattainable, such as the cause and/or cure for cancer, we could do well to adopt a model more like that used in other chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, which is never fully prevented nor cured, rather treated to ensure that the lives of patients are prolonged in an enhanced way.

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