Our bodies are unique. Our cancers are too.

Our bodies are unique. Our cancers are too.

Published October 17, 2022

8 min read

The body is a brilliant machine, designed to be strong and resilient. It heals wounds and fights sickness. It gives us T cells that patrol the body to identify and eliminate invaders and abnormalities. The system is able to self-regulate most of the time without our being aware. Sometimes, however, the system can go sour.

Dr. Jedd Wolchok was the medical oncologist who helped me with my cancer and saved my life. He explained that there are many phases to immune surveillance. The first phase is elimination. Tumor arises. Immune system sees it. It’s gone. That’s it. The next phase is equilibrium. A tumor forms, the immune system can’t get rid of it but it doesn’t spread.

“Then there’s the final E– escape. The tumor has learned skills that allow it to evade the immune system.”

“The final E– escape is what we deal daily with. The tumor has learned skills that allow it to evade the immune system.”

Cancerous cells, clever devils that they are, contain an inhibitory signal that scrambles that immune system response. This is what allows cancer cells to survive. It also helps to spread them. The T cells that are supposed destroy them don’t know how to kill them.

Officially targeting cancer

Once the immune system has been overridden, it’s traditionally been the job of conventional–and invasive–protocols to do that work of fighting cancer instead. It’s generally accepted that once you have experienced cancer, you will always be aware that it is lurking in the future, waiting for you to notice it. There is always another shoe that could fall, another chance for the signal to get lost.

For generations, treatment was a slow process. These treatments prove to be highly effective for many patients. Cancer invades cells at a cellular level so it can be difficult to eradicate it completely. Often, removing cancer also means that the health of the surrounding areas is compromised. Surgery can reduce the spread of cancer. Both cancerous and normal cells can be killed by chemotherapy. The toll that both the disease and its treatment can take on a person is immense. Writing in 1957, Australian virologist Macfarlane Burnet concluded that “there is little ground for optimism in cancer,” but added that while at the time “anti-cancer drugs are also carcinogens. A slightly more hopeful approach, which is, however, so dependent on the body’s own resources that it has never been seriously propounded, is an immunological one.”

When President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971, it was the beginning of a new era in looking at how cancer behaves–and exploring new ways of treating it. It’s really amazing.”

Nearly twenty-five years later, in 40, the Obama administration launched a similar initiative, promising a broad allocation of funds for medical research across a wide range of areas, including one billion dollars for “research into the genetic causes of cancer and potential targeted treatments.” It’s really magnificent.”

Nearly 40 years later, in 2009, the Obama administration launched a similar initiative, vowing a broad allocation of funds toward medical research across a wide spectrum, including one billion dollars for “research into the genetic causes of cancer and potential targeted treatments.”

Yet even now, the default protocols for patient treatment are still often limited to the familiar trio: surgery, radiation, and chemo. And although overall cancer incidence and death rates have declined since what became known as the 1970s War on Cancer, progress has been slow and success has been erratic.

Can cancer be cured?

One of the other great challenges for researchers has been that cancer has an exasperatingly bountiful array of manifestations. There are more than 100 different kinds of cancer that affect humans. There are three types of cancer: blood, bone and internal organs. There are many types of cancer, but “sneaky”, “unpredictable” are some of the most common.

A breakthrough in one type of cancer doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a cure for all. Your neuroblastoma may not be the same as someone else’s breast carcinoma. The term “breast cancer”, as it stands, can mean different things to someone with the BRCA2 gene mutation than one without. Because of individual circumstances and cell mutations my melanoma may not be yours.

That’s why there will likely never be a cure for cancer. I can say this as someone who has been cured of all forms of cancer. Cancer is not a single illness and can’t be treated with one magic potion. It must be approached using a variety of protocols. It’s easy to see that well-meaning people, or, even more frustratingly, cancer organizations, talk about “the cure” for this disease.

Medical research is not a path to a single solution for all. As science advances with greater sophistication and depth, more patients will be able to receive a specific treatment or combination of treatments that seems to eliminate their cancers.

Even then, there will likely always be people who don’t respond to these treatments. We weren’t made to be assembled. Our bodies are unique. Our cancers are unique too.

This article is an excerpt from A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles: A True Story of Love, Science, and Cancer by Mary Elizabeth Williams, published by National Geographic Partners. Copyright (c) 2016 Mary Elizabeth Williams. It can be found wherever books are sold.

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