The Science of Cancer

The only politician you should trust is a dead one. Thus when politicians take to giving health advice you’d be well advised to ignore them and their pearls of wisdom. Last week member of Parliament Mario Oriani-Ambrosini wrote an article which was meant to discuss his journey with Cancer but instead took a cheap shot at the entire medical fraternity.

Ambrosini believes that he did so in the name of name of ‘hundreds of millions’ of cancer patients worldwide whom he quite obviously feels have been mistreated. The simple fact that none of the evidence supports such a view is clearly lost on the honourable member. Allow me to take you on a journey through the reality that is Cancer in 2013.

There is no doubt that cancer remains and will continue to be a major health problem facing all of humanity for the foreseeable future. The argument that science does not know what causes cancer is completely without foundation. The most basic definition of cancer is that it is the uncontrolled division of cells anywhere in the body. Simply put, this happens because of mutations in proto-oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes which are intended to prevent such cell behavior.

Proto-oncogenes provide the genetic information required for cells to grow and become parts of functioning organs. The mutation of these genes results in oncogenes which can then lead to the proliferation of cancer cells. Tumour suppressor genes, as the name implies, are part of the biological mechanism which defends the body against cancer by destroying cells which are damaged or function improperly. Mutations in these genes potentially result in the inability to prevent the aforementioned uncontrolled cell division. This is an incredibly simplistic and only partially complete explanation of the very complex mechanisms behind cancer, but it is just a glimpse of the volume of knowledge science possesses about one of our greatest enemies.

Patient autonomy, a fundamental of Bioethics, means that Ambrosini is entitled to choose his doctors and his treatment. Tullio Simonici is however not a doctor. He may have once qualified at a medical school but has since been stripped of his medical registration and was in 2006 convicted of fraud and wrongful death. Indeed he has in my opinion lost the right to use the title ‘Dr’. My opinion does not however prevent Simonici from selling the bogus cancer treatment which Ambrosini bought into. The notion that a fungal infection, vaginal thrush for those of you without science training, causes cancer or has any role in the development of the disease is without basis. The additional claim that Sodium Bicarbonate (cooking/baking soda) has any effect on cancer cells or fungus is equally without evidence. The further assertion that a gene (CYP1B1) which encodes for an enzyme acts as a self destruct mechanism for cancer is completely spurious.

According to US figures from the American Cancer Society, where Ambrosini claims 550 000 die each year despite treatment, 67% of people diagnosed with cancer now survive at least 5 years after receiving the bad news. The 5 year survival rates for localised breast cancer are 99% and an even better 100% for regional prostate cancer. It is true that more advanced disease translates to a lower chance of survival regardless of the interventions offered by medical science or the obligatory snake oil peddlers. In the case of Mr Ambrosini lung cancer with spread has relatively poor 5 year survival rates at a meager 4%. The general consensus is that metastatic mesothelioma confers a life expectancy of less than 2 years post diagnosis.

The potential cures for cancer which Ambrosini speaks of will not come from the Dalai Lama nor will they come from discredited medical practitioners trying to make a quick buck on the Internet. Cures will come from science and like them or not “Big Pharma”. The advances we have seen in the treatment and cure of several diseases including certain cancers are directly as a result of the massive investment by doctors, biologists, pharmacists, academic institutions, corporates and governments worldwide.

Cancer is not ‘science’s greatest failure’ but rather an ongoing success story for which the conclusion will sadly come too late for people like Mario Oriani-Ambrosini. It is understandable for terminal patients to clutch at even the smallest chance of survival regardless of any realistic expectation of success. That said muddying the waters with misinformation which only serves to endanger the lives of others is no way to end ones existence, not even for a politician.

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3 thoughts on “The Science of Cancer

  1. Look at you, with your science and evidence. Our great lord, the great Flying Spaghetti Monster will abolish cancer from us all by providing us with the great healing Napolenta Ragu!

    Also, Mr T Noakes of Cape Town aught to read this.

  2. Syllable says:

    I really appreciate the way you have explained this; I’m all for funding cancer research, but for most part I (personally) don’t believe that cancer can be cured (just yet); death by cancer can be delayed. My mom has been cancer-free for four years now, so maybe I might be converted to a full believer soon! 🙂

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