I honestly think the short answer to that is no, but I would love to be proved wrong.
There are any number of high-profile cancer research campaigns, all begging and pleading for funding. The UK medical research funding bodies are really stretched at the moment. Their funding was cut in the first round of austerity measures back in 2009. At the time, research scientists were warned that as much as 20% would be cut from research budgets, and that the remaining funding would be more focussed on translational research, that is, research which would yield applications in medicine, technology, engineering, for example. This meant that much basic science research into novel therapies was cut short. The EU-funded project I worked on for 4 years, looking at a novel gene implicated in cardiovascular disease risk, was cut off from the next funding round. The shortfall in funding vital research will have to be made up from private funding, legacies and public awareness campaigns. So I am always interested and supportive when I hear about anyone embarking on this sort of fundraising for projects near to their hearts. Because behind every campaign is a passion, a love, a loss.
Two new campaigns have Twittered into my timeline. Two new lines of research into novel therapies for cancer. One is a campaign for more funding for immunotherapy by Ruth Stavric, the other is iCancer, campaigning for more funding for a cancer-busting virus. I have not read the preliminary research on which either of these campaigns is based, so I would urge cancer patients and their families to approach with caution. And in the UK (to my knowledge), these therapies are not available, apart from a small number of pilot study immunotherapy clinical trials.
Yes, cost is an issue. The stats for cancer care are astonishing, and an ageing population will present with more cancers. The health authorities are already facing increased detection rates of cancer in patients over 65 years, across all cancers. There is no doubt that a widespread roll-out of novel therapies across the NHS is never going to happen. Indeed, it is rare, even for cancer care of patients who can pay for it privately, to deviate from the standard treatment at the moment. Pharmaceutical trials do go ahead, but the clinical criteria for entering many of these trials limit the number of patients who can enter the trial. There is also a vast minefield of medical ethics to consider, on top of constant monitoring, blood tests, scans and the like. Which goes some way to explaining the lag behind research discoveries.
A bit about the science
The science behind cancer is very complex. On a molecular level the initiator of a rogue cancer cell can vary from a genetic mutation to a break in a chromosome, or a response to an environmental stimulus (like a cold, or a chemical toxin). That is why a ‘one size fits all’ approach to cancer treatment is unlikely to be found. Breakthroughs in cancer research in the 1990s discovered the bcr1 gene, tamoxifen responsive breast cancer, the bcr-abl cluster in leukaemia, and clinicians have been successfully using this knowledge for a number of years. So it’s a long term project. And best results across all cancers will most likely come from a number of approaches, some tailored to individual genetic make-up, some tailored to the individual immuno-regulation response, some using tried and tested chemotherapeutic agents, and some based on faith and alternative therapies. Many cancer patients will benefit from a multi-approach. Many will not.
My Mom died of cancer last year. She was only 66 years old. She had small cell lung cancer, a very aggressive form of cancer. Without first stage palliative chemotherapy, she would have been dead within 4 months of her diagnosis. As it was, chemotherapy gave her another 5 months with us. She opted to stop chemo after 4 months because it made her too ill to spend time with her friends, family and grandchildren. And she died a dignified, peaceful death at home. You can read about Mom’s story and our positive approach to Mom’s cancer. Mom’s cancer was complex, made up of different cell types. These small cells spread throughout Mom’s lungs and into her spine and other organs. Nothing could have stopped the relentless march of those cells.
And I’m reminded at this time, of two other inspirational women. Ellie died earlier this year, having followed every line of treatment she could, to fight her breast cancer. Kris started CoppaFeel! to promote awareness of breast cancer in young women and is in part behind the new campaign of breast awareness.
Despite their best efforts, oncologists cannot save every cancer patient. Whilst I applaud all efforts at new discoveries, fundraising and the brave people who take part in clinical trials, people still die from cancer. I would like to see more funding for end-of-life care. More funding to train more people to talk about dying. Because when cancer has run its course, your loved one deserves the best. A peaceful, pain-free death.