By Robert G. Bell
Cancer has always scared me. Even though modern medicine has been able to treat many cancers as chronic diseases, it is difficult to shake that death sentence feeling. Perhaps it was the centuries old teachings from Galen, who like Hippocrates generally considered a cancer patient incurable, that to a certain extent, still linger. More likely, it is my personal experiences with the loss of family and friends to cancer. In some cases, we bought some precious time and a little hope, but usually at the expense of the quality of life of the patient. But at the time, there was no known prevention or cure for cancer. However, times have changed and there are more therapeutic options, and more hope.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work on therapies associated with endocrine sensitive cancers such as breast and prostate cancers. The intent was always to better the patient’s life, either by extending their survival, minimizing disease effects, or improving their quality of life. Every little bit counts, but at times, that’s what it is—a little bit. As a researcher, I always wanted to do more than a little bit when it came to addressing cancer.
Depending on how it is defined, there are over 200 types of cancer. Typical treatments for many of the cancers include surgery, radiation, hormonal therapy, and chemotherapy. Surgery is the oldest form and generally still the mainstay of cancer treatment. About 60% of cancer patients will have a surgical procedure, ranging from a biopsy to preventative and curative surgery. Radiation therapy is used alone or in combination with other cancer therapies to eliminate tumors and prevent tumor recurrence. About 50% of cancer patients will receive radiation therapy during their course of cancer treatment. Chemotherapy utilizes antineoplastic agents to cure, extend life, and provide palliative care for cancer patients. Hormonal therapy is used in the treatment of endocrine sensitive cancers such as breast and prostate cancers where manipulation of hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone can influence the growth rate of these endocrine sensitive tumors. Put together, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormonal therapies for the treatment of cancer are effective approaches to the treatment of many cancers. As we continue to unravel and understand the biology of cancer, new therapies (and hope) will be developed that precisely target the cancer cells and leave the normal cells undisturbed.
Some of these newer therapies include precision targeted therapies including immunotherapies. On paper, targeted precision therapies, such as Gleevec, Iressa,and Perjeta offer the most hope. Each day we learn more about cancer biology and tailoring the treatment specific to the patient and disease. However, at this time, targeted treatments are few and the patients usually still receive a combination of targeted therapy and surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and/or hormonal therapy for their cancer treatment. But there are exciting possibilities utilizing immunotherapies on the horizon that include cancer vaccines, protein therapy, checkpoint inhibitors, monoclonal antibodies, gene therapies, and cytokines (PDF).
Our next blog will talk more about these exciting immunotherapies, starting with cancer vaccines. Imagine what we could do if we could not only treat cancer, but prevent it.