Despite no ‘magic bullet,’ cancer research barrels on

SEATTLE — Associated with the pandemic of cancer has always been the elusive goal of curing entirely one of the most deadly diseases humanity has ever known.

While a sure-fire cure hasn’t been discovered — and may never be, as scientists often point out that the complexity of the disease doesn’t lend itself to a one-size-fits-all solution — tremendous progress has been made in cancer prevention, research and treatment.

“Every form of cancer could be considered a different disease,” said Dr. Derek Lindstrom, a post doctoral researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “It’s not realistic to think there’s one solution to all cancers. There’s not going to be a magic bullet, but there may be common themes (in treatment).”

Advancement in research has come largely through donations from the American Cancer Society (ACS), a leading fund-raising arm in the fight against a disease that is expected to take about 570,000 lives in the United States this year alone.

That number proves there is a long way to go. But treatment has also come a long way: the chances of overcoming cancer are now greater than 50 percent, the ACS reports.

Of the approximately $270 million the ACS spent last year on programs, about $128 million went to research and another $60 million went to prevention programs. Combined, that makes up about 70 percent of its total expenditures.

Today will also mark the beginning of North Kitsap’s own ACS Relay for Life fund-raiser, starting at 10 a.m. at the North Kitsap High School track. While last year’s event raised $118,000, the event’s organizers are hoping for an equally, if not more successful, 2005 Relay.

The money raised through Relays across the country help scientists like Lindstrom and his colleagues continue, by each complex piece by piece, in putting together cancer’s puzzle.

Lindstrom and other researchers at a lab at the Fred Hutchinson Center are currently studying how aging affects incidences of cancer.

“Basically, if you look at cancer rates, they increase exponentially as we age,” Lindstrom said. “There’s changes that occur in our bodies that make us more susceptible to the mutations that cause cancer.”

Lindstrom said that despite the high volume of research already completed, there are still many unknowns with regard to changes in the human body as we age. Once they can answer that question, he said, they can more effectively combat certain cancers because they’ll know a little bit more about the enemy they face.

Lindstrom knows too well the effects of the disease, having been a skin cancer survivor himself. Prevention and treatment helped save his life.

He also participates in one of the Northwest’s Relay for Life events. This year, he attended the Central Pierce County Relay June 17.

He said he was most impressed this year by the number of young people participating, a sign that preventative efforts against cancer aren’t falling on deaf ears.

“Although most people are diagnosed later in life, many of the things that lay the groundwork (for cancer) actually take place when you’re young,” he commented, citing smoking and sun exposure as two cancer catalysts. “So I’m always really excited to see young people. Prevention is going to be a very important factor.”

He ran into many cancer survivors at the event, which further attested that cancer treatment is improving. Two former patients he met who had similar cancer — one who was diagnosed in the ‘80s and one more recently — told very different stories. The former had three months worth of very arduous treatment, while the latter had only a month’s worth of relatively smooth treatment.

“I think we’ve made tremendous progress at this point,” Lindstrom said. “A cure is sort of the gold standard that we aim for, but there are many aspects (of prevention and research) that are greatly improved in the past 20 years.”

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