December 14, 2018

Frequently Asked Question: Will there ever be a cure for cancer?

The short answer to this question is no - we are very unlikely to find a single cure for cancer in our lifetime. That is not to say that there haven’t been enormous improvements in all aspects of cancer care and treatment over the last few decades, brought about by cancer research.

Cancer is not just one disease but a collection of many complex and often very different illnesses. They target the body in a myriad of different ways and are found at different stages. They are grouped under the heading of cancer as they all start the same way – cells in the body begin to divide without stopping and spread to surrounding tissue.

As with any complex problem there is no single solution but research has already identified many new ways that we can readily improve the cancer situation and further research will undoubtedly improve things even further.

For example, 50 years ago leukaemia in children was always fatal, often rapidly so. Today the majority of children with leukaemia in Ireland will be taking part in clinical research and more than 9/10 of them will be fully cured of their disease.

Similar advances in have been seen with breast, prostate and other cancers where survival rates have increased dramatically over the last 20 years.

Unfortunately we do have a long way to go with some other cancers - lung, pancreas and ovarian for example - where treatment advances have led to more modest improvements in outcome and survival.

It is the case now though that well over half of everyone who receives a cancer diagnosis in Ireland will be cured of their cancer. This is good news but we have to remember that the number of people being diagnosed is also growing each year.

What about Irish cancer research?

It is also important to point out that Irish researchers have and will continue to play important and leading roles in the development of new approaches to cancer. For example, Dr Moya Cole helped develop tamoxifen, a breast cancer drug that has saved the countless women’s lives. Prof Joe Duffy continues to build on breast cancer biomarker research which generated an important diagnostic in this field. Our Irish Cancer Society investment in research supports the actions of large Irish research groups like BREAST PREDICT, Blood Cancer Network and Cancer Trials Ireland.

What might the future look like then?

Using medicines, radiation and surgery and modifying the immune system we will find more ways to cure some patients. For some other forms of cancer we will find new approaches that maybe don’t cure/eliminate the cancer but will control it for much longer periods meaning that more people will live their life with cancer and increasingly live that life without the major consequences of that cancer. All of this will only be made possible by continued support of the specialists who dedicate their lives to improving care and outcome for those affected by cancer, be they in laboratories, hospitals or other research locations.

So will there ever be “a” cure for cancer? - the answer is no, there won’t be a single medicine or approach that cures all cancer. However, we are well on the journey to ensuring that we will have a range of options, some of which will cure specific cancers at certain stages and some of which will give long durable control so more and more people will be living with cancer.