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As We Enter a New Era of Cancer Treatment, I’m Taking Caution in Headlines Highlighting a Cure


Recent headlines have been highlighting a monoclonal antibody that eliminated evidence of disease in patients with rectal cancer, but I believe that findings from the research need to be taken with a few grains of caution.

It’s been making a big splash in the oncology world and outside it—the news that a drug in the monoclonal antibody class has been effective in producing a durable remission lasting up to 25 months (to date) in just over a dozen rectal cancer patients. My inbox has been flooded with people sending me links to the many media reports on this stunning development. A cure for cancer! A cure!

While I am thrilled at the news, nowadays I know enough about cancer to view it with a few grains of caution, which I have shared with my friends.

The data need to be examined by third parties and the study must be replicated. It is not unheard of for research teams to make significant errors with their data or downright lie. So scientific “due process” needs to happen to be sure that this is really real.

"Cancer” is not just one disease. It is a category of diseases that share similar features in general but that also vary quite widely in specific mutations, cellular errors, metabolic defects, etc. That’s why what works like a charm for one patient with X diagnosis may hardly work at all (or not work) for the next patient with the exact same diagnosis.

For instance, “breast cancer” isn’t just one thing. It has types that are quite distinct and can make a big difference in how certain treatments work or don’t work. And more to the point, breast cancer isn’t the same as colon cancer. They’re both cancers and both share certain qualities that make them “cancer.” But the exact nature of some of those defects is not totally identical between the two.

What worked like gangbusters for rectal cancer may not work for all cancers.

However, the fact that this drug produced such wonderful results for this one very small segment of the cancer world serves as a kind of “proof of concept.” A similar method might be able to be developed for other types of cancers, to the improvement of all.

For example, chemotherapy was first tried in just a very, very few types of cancers that, back in the day, had no real treatments that had any effect. It wasn’t a cure-all, but in a setting where there were virtually no remissions, much less cures, it was a huge step forward (and did, in fact, cure a small handful of lucky patients back then), and gradually different kinds of chemotherapies were developed that worked better (or worse) on different kinds of cancers. We take chemo for granted, today. But it wasn’t always this way.

So the monoclonal antibody technology that these researchers have used to create this treatment may be applied to other cancers, similar to chemo cracking open and letting us have a peek inside. We just need to learn how to make the crack wide enough for more cancer patients with more types of cancers to walk through.

A “complete clinical response” is not necessarily a cure, meaning that the cancer won’t ever come back because it’s gone forever. But they’ve followed patients for up to 25 months (at the time the study results were reported) and there were no signs of recurrence yet. That’s a very good thing, and definitely a reason to hope.

I find it interesting to note that this is happening within an industry that is routinely vilified by alternative-medicine-only types for not “really” wanting to cure cancer. If we adopt the “a-miracle-occurred" stance toward this research, I guess we’d have to say that the cancer industry is making two mistakes at the same time: first in having found something that may possibly do exactly what the cancer industry never really wanted in the first place (to which I think, then why fund the research at all?) and second in publicizing the positive findings instead of keeping them tightly under wraps in a sealed vault deep in the heart of some government fortress in the guts of a hollowed-out mountain somewhere.

Ah, but take heart. (Tongue now firmly in cheek.) Replication studies may not work, or (drum roll for the conspiratorial mindset, here) may be able to be manipulated to appear as if they aren’t working, so that this incredible breakthrough can be suppressed. After all, there’s never so much fun as when you’ve gotten the hopes of the gullible masses all pumped up, and then you can dash them again, right? What a thrill!

OK. I’m done with snarky.

I do agree with my friends. This is very good news and very hopeful news. I’ve been watching with some surprise over the last dozen years since I completed my own treatment for inflammatory breast cancer. The newer systemic treatments that are being developed are game changers, as are the improved ways to detect recurrence earlier and the effort to find ways to make that discovery meaningful in extending the lives of terminal patients who we lose today—possibly, one day, to extend them even to the point of cure.

Cancer treatment seems to be entering a new era. I’m glad that I’m still here to see it.

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