“Cured” – In cancer, this word can evoke a number of emotions. Interestingly, not all these emotions will be as positive as you might think. If you want to spark a heated debate on a Neuroendocrine Cancer patient forum, just mention that you’ve been cured. I’ve been living with Neuroendocrine Cancer for 7 years so I must be cured, right? Not as easy as this unfortunately and I’m guessing this is the case for many cancers.
Doctors clearly need to be careful when saying the word “cured‘ even if there is a 99% likelihood that a cancer will not recur. It is (currently) impossible to know if there are “micrometastases” present in your body—that is, metastases which are too small to be seen, even on the latest imaging. There’s plenty of conservative alternative terms that can be used such as ‘stable’, ‘no evidence of disease (NED)’, ‘in remission’ or ‘complete response’. I don’t see the latter two much in Neuroendocrine disease circles.
So with all these ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, what exactly is a cure?
Answering this question isn’t a simple case of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because it depends on the way that the term ‘cancer’ is defined. It should actually be viewed as an umbrella term for a collection of hundreds of different diseases. They all share the fundamental characteristic of rogue cells growing out of control, but each type of cancer, and each person’s individual cancer, is unique and comes with its own set of challenges.
That’s why it’s very unlikely that there will be one single cure that can wipe out all cancers. That doesn’t mean individual cases of cancer can’t be cured. Many cancers in fact already can be. Scientists aren’t actually on the hunt for a ‘silver bullet’ against all cancers, Quite the opposite. The more scientists get to know each type of cancer inside and out, the greater the chance of finding new ways to tackle these diseases so that more people can survive. Thanks to a much deeper understanding of cell biology and genetics, there exist today a growing number of targeted therapies that have been designed at a molecular level to recognise particular features specific of cancer cells. Along with chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, these treatments—used singly and in combination—have led to a slow, but steady, increase in survival rates. You can definitely count Neuroendocrine Cancer in that category.
Cancer is seen today less as a disease of specific organs, and more as one of molecular mechanisms caused by the mutation of specific genes. The implication of this shift in thinking is that the best treatment for, say, colorectal cancer may turn out to be designed and approved for use against tumors in an entirely different part of the body, such as the breast. We’re certainly seeing that with certain targeted therapies and more recently with Immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy will eventually cure cancer, right?
Immunotherapy will play a huge part in cancer treatment in the future, that we know. But to suggest that it’s a cure is probably overstating its current success. Neuroendocrine Cancer has not been forgotten – you can read more about Neuroendocrine Cancer and Immunotherapy here.
I heard the Oncolytic Virus at Uppsala is a cure?
There is currently no scientific evidence that the Oncolytic Virus (AdVince) can cure humans with Neuroendocrine Cancer. So far it has only been proven in destroying neuroendocrine tumours in mice. The Oncolytic Viruses developed in Uppsala are now being evaluated in phase I clinical trials for neuroendocrine cancer. If you’re not up to speed with this trial, read more here – Oncolytic Virus Uppsala
Isn’t prevention better than a cure?
This old adage is still relevant BUT latest thinking would indicate it is not applicable to all cancers. Scientists claim that 66% of cancer is simply a form of ‘bad luck’ and if the claim is accurate, it follows that many cancers are simply inevitable. The thinking suggests that random errors occurring during DNA replication in normal stem cells are a major contributing factor in cancer development confirming that “bad luck” explains a far greater number of cancers than do hereditary and environmental factors. This scientific thinking is a tad controversial so it’s worth remembering that even if, as this study suggests, most individual cancer mutations are due to random chance, the researchers also admit that the cancers they cause may still be preventable. It’s complex!
Surely a cure is more possible if the earlier cancer is diagnosed?
To a certain extent this is true for many types of cancer. In fact the same scientists did say ….”We detect those attacks when they’re still early, before the cancers have widely spread, at a time when they can still be cured simply by surgery or perhaps surgery and adjuvant therapy, which always works better on smaller tumors.”.
What about Neuroendocrine Tumors (NETs)? Clearly I’m not qualified to make such statements except to say that I am of the opinion that earlier diagnosis is better for any curative scenario. The challenge with NETs is getting a diagnosis before the cancer does long-term damage. It’s an extremely sneaky cancer. When you read NET guidelines (ENETS/NANETS etc), the word ‘cure’ and ‘curative’ is mentioned. Bearing in mind that our most expert NET specialists are involved in the drafting of these guidelines, perhaps we should pause and think before dismissing these claims. Clearly with advanced disease, the cancer becomes incurable but treatment for many being palliative to reduce tumor bulk and reduce any symptoms and/or syndrome effects. The words ‘cure’ and ‘curative’ can be found in many NET specialist publications in relation to early stage disease, so I guess there must be something in it. Having checked ENETS publications, I can see it’s related to certain conditions and factors such as localisation within the organ, tumour size, good resection margins and there are also recommendations concerning the gaps between follow-up surveillance in certain scenarios. Clearly in these cases, surveillance is as vital as any other scenario.
The newspapers are always talking about breakthroughs and cures for cancer?
Newspapers looking for a good headline will use words such as ‘cure’. Sadly, headlines are generally written by sub-editors who scan the article and look to find a ‘reader-oriented angle’ for the heading. They either can’t or don’t have time to understand what’s actually being said. Unfortunately this then leads to people sharing what is now a misleading article without a thought for the impact on those who are worried about the fact they have cancer and whether it can be cured or not. There’s also a lot of fake health news out there – check out my article series about the problems with the internet and ‘Miracle Cures’.
What would a cure mean to those living with NETs?
This is something that has crossed my mind, even though I don’t believe it will happen in my lifetime. I guess it would be good to get rid of the known remnant tumors left behind from my treatment (and any micrometastases currently not detectable). However, many NET patients are living with the consequences of cancer and its treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy, biological therapy, somatostatin analogues, radionuclide therapy, liver directed therapy, and others. Many of these effects would remain – let’s face it, a cure is not going to give me back bits of my small and large intestine, liver and an army of lymph nodes. So support for those living with NETs would need to remain despite a cure.
The emotional aspect of the word ‘cured’ seems to be an issue across many cancers and it’s certainly very controversial in NET circles. The world has still not cured the many cancers that exist. But over the next five to ten years the era of personalised medicine could see enormous progress in making cancer survivable. I think both doctors and patients need to take a pragmatic view on the ‘cured’ word and to end this article I wanted to share an interesting quote I found whilst researching:
Thanks for reading