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More than 20 mRNA-based vaccines had entered clinical trials by 2021, with some promising outcomes in treating solid tumors.
Will Cancer Ever Be Cured?
Chris Vincent, MD, is board-certified in family medicine. He is a clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and practices at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
It’s possible that some cancers can be cured in the future, but that’s not how cancers that respond to treatment are described in the present. Cancers can recur, so “cures” are referred to as complete remission or evaluated as “no evidence of disease” (NED).
As treatments evolve and become more sophisticated, some experts believe cancers will one day be eliminated. Others think the ability to control cancer as a chronic disease is more achievable. Either way, it’s important to keep in mind the many types of cancers affecting the unique individuals living with them. There’s no one size fits all.
This article examines the possibility of a future cure for cancer. It explains the complexities of the disease, obstacles that prevent the cure of more cancers, and the ways in which advances in research and treatment may one day deliver success.
Speaking of a “cure for cancer” is overly simplistic because there are hundreds of different types of cancer, from the all-too-common but highly treatable non-melanoma skin cancers to the rare and aggressive Merkel cell carcinoma , a different type of skin cancer that’s often fatal.
Even as skin cancers differ from each other, so do the more than 200 cancers that are known to affect the lung, breast, pancreas, bone, and other organs. When two cancers are the same tissue type, subtype, and stage, they may still have significant molecular differences that play a role in treatment options and outcome.
There is no single cure and the science of pharmacogenomics (knowing how a person’s genetic make-up influences how they respond to drugs) is early in its development of personalized medicine. Further, the cancer cells often find ways to escape both treatments and the immune system.
Cancer cells begin as normal cells in the body, making them much more difficult to treat than other microorganisms. Treatments like chemotherapy eliminate cancer cells but also normal cells, leading to side effects of treatment.
Early Detection and Cancer
Many cancers can be “cured” if detected early. Stage 0 cancers such as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) are, in theory, cancers that can be cured completely. Small stage 1 tumors can recur but are considered treatable. Five-year survival rates that suggest a more “curable” disease include breast cancer, melanoma, thyroid cancer, and Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as testicular and prostate cancers.
Cancer isn’t one disease, but recent scientific advances are exploiting some of the similarities between different cancers in order to treat them. There are changes that transform a normal cell into a cancer cell, and the pathways associated with these changes often overlap.
Roughly 90% of cancer-related deaths are due to metastases (original cancers that spread to other parts of the body) and the ways in which errant cells spread to regions where they don’t belong has some commonalities among tumor types. There are changes that transform a normal cell into a cancer cell, and the pathways associated with these changes often overlap.
In one example, cancer cells often lose proteins referred to as adhesion molecules that cause them to stick to nearby cells. This makes the cells more likely to break loose and travel via the blood or lymph fluid to other parts of the body.
Some cancer treatments are based on these similarities and work for more than one cancer type. They include the immunotherapy drug Opdivo ( nivolumab ) and the targeted therapy drug Vitrakvi ( larotrectinib ).
This checkpoint inhibitor works to make cancer cells visible to the immune system, eliciting a response to fight them. It is approved for people with cancers including:
- Metastatic non-small cell and small cell lung cancer
- Melanoma skin cancers
- Liver cancer
- Hodgkin lymphoma
- Head and neck cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Certain forms of colorectal or esophageal cancer
This targeted therapy drug works in some people with cancer who test positive for a genetic change called neutrophic receptor kinase (NTRK) gene fusion. It may be used to treat people with:
- Salivary gland tumors
- Thyroid cancer
- Colon cancer
- Lung cancer
Obstacles in Curing Cancer
Before discussing a number of obstacles that are preventing the cure and often even control of cancer, it’s important to note that some cancers are highly treatable and appear to go away after treatment.
Oncologists (cancer specialists) often use the terms “no evidence of disease” (NED) or “complete remission” to describe them because they can recur.
Treatable vs. Curable
“Treatable” is different than “curable.” For example, breast cancers that are estrogen receptor positive (stage 1 to stage 3) are more likely to recur five to 10 years after diagnosis than in the first five years, and sometimes recur even decades later. These cancers may be more “treatable” as there are more options but they are, in a sense, less “curable” than those that are not hormone receptor positive.
With some cancers, such as childhood leukemia and Hodgkin lymphoma, the chance of the cancer returning in adulthood after successful treatment is very low. In this sense, it’s thought that the cancer can be completely cured. Oncologists will refer to someone as “cured,” for example, if they had acute lymphoblastic leukemia as a child.
On the other hand, certain cancers are more likely to recur in people who entered remission. They include glioblastoma, which has a five-year survival rate of just 5% even with treatment. Ovarian cancer and peripheral T-cell lymphoma also are more likely to recur.
In some cases, the term “durable response” may be used when it appears long-term control of a metastatic cancer is possible or achieved. This is most common in stage 4 cancers that respond to treatments, with immunotherapy drugs appearing to improve the chances of durable response.
There’s a tendency to think of cancer as an unchanging clone of abnormal cells, but that’s not the case at all. Cancer cells are continually changing and acquiring new mutations.
These new mutations may give rise to new characteristics of the cancer, such as the ability to spread more freely. Non-genetic cellular changes in cell behavior, called “epigenetic” changes, also occur.
Changes in cancer cells mean that a tumor that responded to treatment at first has found ways to resist cancer drugs and continue to grow. A significant amount of cancer research is focused on the growth pathway of specific tumors to identify other targetable places to halt their growth.
Many targeted therapies are able to control the growth of a tumor for a time before resistance develops. In some cases, next-generation drugs are available that allow people to stay ahead of this resistance, but tumors often again change.
Resistance also can transform a tumor into a completely different subtype of cancer. For example, some EGFR positive non-small cell lung cancers may transform to small cell lung cancer, a much more difficult type of cancer to treat.
Cancers Enlist Help From Normal Cells/Tissue Microenvironment
Cancer cells hide and adapt while often enlisting help from normal cells in their surroundings. These nearby cells, such as fibroblasts and macrophages , can be coaxed into helping a tumor grow through blood vessel growth ( angiogenesis ) to feed the tumor or suppress the immune system.
Their secretions can’t be studied in a lab, adding to the challenge of understanding and treating cancer.
Heterogenicity of Tumors
Another characteristic of cancers is heterogeneity . Not all cancer cells are the same, at the same time. They continually change how they behave and adapt in different parts of a tumor.
Due to these changes, one part of a tumor may be sensitive to a treatment while another part of the tumor (or a metastasis) may be resistant.
Balance: Efficacy vs. Toxicity
Treating cancer means establishing a balance between what’s effective and its side effects. This balance is visible when adding immunotherapy drugs to cancer treatment.
The immune system requires a balance between being overly active and attacking the body’s own tissues, and being underactive such that tumors grow unchecked.
The most common side effects of immunotherapy drugs include inflammatory disorders, while reciprocally, some medications for inflammatory diseases may raise the risk the cancer.
Most cancer drugs are first studied in the lab and in animal studies. What works in a dish in the lab (in vitro) does not often translate to effectiveness in the human body (in vivo), and cost is always a consideration. According to a 2018 review, it’s thought that roughly 90% of cancer drugs that appear to be effective in lab studies fail to work when studied on humans in clinical trials.
Treatments and Advances Toward a Cure
Progress in curing cancer may seem slow, but several advances in diagnosis and treatment are changing cancer care.
Targeted therapies, while not a cure, can sometimes control a cancer for a significant period of time. Gleevec ( imatinib ) used to treat leukemia and a few other cancers is a good example.
With second and third generation drugs for some types of cancer, some people—for a time at least— control their cancer as a chronic disease much like high blood pressure or diabetes.
The ability to identify gene mutations and rearrangements is expanding. Tests such as next-generation sequencing allow healthcare providers to examine many genetic alterations that may be treatable.
Sometimes a person may experience the spontaneous remission of cancer, even an advanced cancer. It’s now thought that in some cases, the immune system may fight off a cancer.
The immune system knows how to fight cancer with powerful cells such as T cells. Unfortunately, cancer cells have discovered the ability to suppress that immune response so that cancer cells can grow unchecked. Immunotherapy drugs work to empower the immune system instead.
Immunotherapy drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors make cancer cells visible to the immune system. These drugs can result in durable responses in advanced cancers like melanoma, but they don’t work for everyone. Future research may find ways in which more people will respond.
One notable finding is that the diversity of gut bacteria (the gut microbiome) relates to how well checkpoint inhibitors work. Research into ways to increase diversity of the gut microbiome (probiotics didn’t do it) is needed to see if these drugs can be effective for more people.
Adjunct Therapy Using Immunotherapy
Immunotherapy in combination with radiation treatment can sometimes improve control due to the “abscopal effect.” Cell death from radiation activates immune cells that then attack tumor cells far away from the site where radiation was delivered. These combined therapies with an added (adjunct) treatment may improve outcomes.
Nanotechnology is a way of detecting and treating cancer at the molecular level using nanoscale devices. These devices are very small, between 100 and 10,000 times smaller than a human cell.
Scientists hope one day these tiny devices will be used to detect cancer at the earliest possible stage. Nanoscale devices can also be used to deliver targeted therapies directly to cancer cells and to help guide surgeons during tumor removal.
The same mRNA technology that was used to create COVID-19 vaccines is also being tested for cancer treatment. An mRNA cancer vaccine could target specific proteins found in cancer cells and could be individualized for a person’s specific type of cancer.
These vaccines will be able to help the immune system learn to recognize the cancer cells as invaders so they can be eliminated. This technology has been used in clinical trials with mixed and sometimes disappointing results.
More than 20 mRNA-based vaccines had entered clinical trials by 2021, with some promising outcomes in treating solid tumors.
Treatment of Oligometastases
As noted earlier, metastases are responsible for most cancer deaths. Sometimes a metastatic cancer may be reasonably controlled by treatment, but a new metastasis starts or continues to grow (a “rogue” tumor).
Treatment of these areas with methods such as stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) with a curative intent may sometimes eradicate these rogue tumors, allowing a cancer to again be controlled.
The Future of Finding a Cancer Cure
There are many approaches both already available and in the works that promise to improve cancer care and perhaps, one day, a cure. For example, some people respond particularly well to certain treatments.
Researchers want to know why a rare person might respond to a treatment. One example is the EGFR inhibitor Iressa (gefitinib), which was limited 20 years ago to only people with non-small cell lung cancer who responded well.
The evolving understanding of the role of EGFR mutations in some lung cancers (between 10% and 20% of non-small cell lung cancers) led to expanded drug approval in 2015, for people with specific EGFR-related changes.
While two main types of EGFR changes account for 85% of those identified, researchers continue to work on more rare types, like EGFR exon 20 insertion mutations.
Other research priorities that may change the way “cure for cancer” is understood include:
- Understanding recurrence, or how and why cancer cells may hide and return
- Understanding metastases, which can lead to new treatments like bisphosphonates in breast cancer
- Liquid biopsies, which can offer new insights into tumor resistance
New genetic discoveries also may lead to prevention or early detection of cancers, as well as treatment options. Genome-wide association studies are studies that look at people with and without a disease and then look for changes (called single nucleotide polymorphisms) in the entire genome that may be associated with the disease.
What About CRISPR?
Gene editing (CRISPR-Cas9) is certainly advancing the science that could aid in treatments, but it’s unlikely that gene editing alone could be a cure in the near future. More potential could be seen in the use of CRISPR to edit cells in the immune system to better fight cancer as with strategies like CAR-T immunotherapy.
While cancer can’t be cured, that’s not how oncologists and cancer experts think about a successful treatment. They refer to it as complete remission, allowing for the fact that cancers can recur. They also describe it as “no evidence of disease” that, in some cases, may prove permanent.
Advances in cancer treatment aren’t the same as a cure but they are helping people to live longer with a cancer diagnosis, sometimes even with the hope of managing it as a chronic disease. Evolving research continues to deliver more personalized care, including immunotherapy and targeted therapy drugs.
It’s unlikely that a single, one size fits all treatment will ever be effective for all cancers. Yet new understanding about cancer and its treatment already informs cancer care and offers options that weren’t possible even a few years ago.
A Word From Verywell
One in two men and one in three women are expected to develop cancer during their lifetime, and far too many people still succumb to the disease. So hope for a cure is important, but so are quality of life and survivorship, whatever advances the future may hold. Your healthcare team can help you to find support during your cancer journey.
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lynne Eldridge, MD
Lynne Eldrige, MD, is a lung cancer physician, patient advocate, and award-winning author of “Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time.”
Can Cancer Be Cured?
Whether a person’s cancer can be cured depends on the type and stage of the cancer, the type of treatment they can get, and other factors. Some cancers are more likely to be cured than others. But each cancer needs to be treated differently. There isn’t one cure for cancer.
Cure versus remission
A cure means that the cancer has gone away with treatment, no more treatment is needed, and the cancer is not expected to come back. It’s rare that a doctor can be sure that cancer will never come back. In most cases it takes time to know if the cancer might come back. But, the longer a person is cancer free, the better the chance that the cancer will not come back. More often, when treatment appears to be successful, doctors will say the cancer is “in remission,” rather than “cured.”
Remission is a period of time when the cancer is responding to treatment or is under control. Some people think that remission means the cancer has been cured, but that may not be the case.
- In a complete remission, all the signs and symptoms of cancer go away, and cancer cells can’t be found by any tests.
- In a partial remission, the cancer shrinks but doesn’t completely go away.
Remissions can last anywhere from weeks to years. Treatment may or may not continue during a remission, depending on the type of cancer. Complete remissions may go on for years and, over time, the cancer may be thought to be cured. If the cancer returns (recurrence), another remission may be possible with more treatment.
What do survival statistics mean?
When told they have cancer, many people ask their doctor what their chance of survival is. While there are many factors that go into an answer, there are statistics that may help. Statistics are numbers that describe what happens to large groups of people with the same diagnosis. Statistics cannot be applied to a specific person but may give some idea of what to expect.
Here are some statistics that are used for cancer:
- Survival rate: the percentage of people who are alive at a certain time after diagnosis.
- Overall survival rate: the percentage of people with a certain type and stage of cancer who have not died from any cause during a period of time after diagnosis.
- Cancer (or disease)-specific survival rate: the percentage of people with a certain type and stage of cancer who have not died from their cancer during a set period of time after diagnosis.
- 5-year relative survival rate: the percentage of people who will be alive 5 years after diagnosis. It does not include those who die from other diseases.
Survival rates can describe any length of time. However, researchers usually look at 5-year relative survival rates.
What does it mean to be a cancer survivor?
There is more than one definition of cancer survivor. Some people use this term to refer to anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer. This is what the American Cancer Society means when we talk about survivorship or living as a cancer survivor.
But some people use the term “survivor” for someone who has completed cancer treatment. And still others might only call a person a survivor if they have lived several years past a cancer diagnosis. Remember though, that treatment lasts longer for some people, and not everyone completes treatment. Some people may live for many years with cancer as a chronic disease.
Others who are impacted, like family and friends, might also sometimes be considered cancer survivors.
Being a cancer survivor means different things for different people. Some people will be cancer free after treatment but may experience late and long term side effects of treatment. Others may be cancer free after treatment but have their cancer come back and need to be treated again. Still others will need to continue with cancer treatment to keep their cancer under control. But anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer needs care that focuses on their unique needs.
Not everyone likes to be called a cancer survivor. Each person has the right to define their experience with cancer. So, anyone who describes themselves as a cancer survivor should be considered one.
Is There a Cure for Cancer?
When you have cancer, or care about someone who does, “cure” may be the word you want to hear more than any other. It’s also a word most doctors won’t say.
Unlike other diseases, cancer has its own language: There’s no cure for it, but there are treatments that may be able to cure some people of some cancers.
When you understand the difference, it makes all the difference.
“Fruit” is a general term you use to cover many different kinds: apples, cranberries, pineapple and more.
Likewise, “cancer” is a catch-all word for more than 200 types, including cancers of the bladder, brain, breast, colon, eye, kidney, liver, lungs, ovaries, and skin.
When you have cancer, abnormal cells develop, divide, and destroy healthy tissue in your body. Some types grow slowly; others spread quickly. Each kind starts in a different part of your body and has its own grades, stages, and symptoms.
Because every kind of cancer is different, there’s no one-size-fits-all cure. But sometimes, people may say they are cured if their cancer seems to go away with treatment. But it’s not quite that simple.
Cure vs. Cured vs. Remission
For centuries, doctors have used the word “cure” to describe a medical condition that’s completely gone and will never come back. For example, if you have appendicitis and doctors remove your appendix, you’ve been cured.
In the language of cancer, “cure” works differently.
Doctors can give you their best perspective, based on statistics from large groups of people, on whether or not your cancer will come back. But no doctor can guarantee that you’ll be cured.
There are two reasons for this:
- Doctors don’t know everything about the disease yet.
- Some cancer cells may remain somewhere in the body and can grow, divide, and become a new tumor. So doctors avoid saying you’re cured.
Instead of talking about “cures,” most medical professionals use the word “treatment.” If you have treatment, and your cancer doesn’t come back the rest of your life, you’re considered cured.
“Remission” is another key word. It means that your cancer symptoms have gone away. It’s different from a cure because remission doesn’t always last for the rest of your life.
There are no cures for any kinds of cancer, but there are treatments that may cure you.
Many people are treated for cancer, live out the rest of their life, and die of other causes. Many others are treated for cancer and still die from it, although treatment may give them more time: even years or decades.
- Bone marrow transplant
- Hormone therapy
- Targeted drug therapy
- Clinical trials
- Palliative care
Treatment plans are tailored to the type of cancer, how advanced it is, your overall health, and your preferences.
Progress, Not Perfection
In one form or another, cancer research has been underway for more than 200 years.
Though there’s not a cure, there has been a lot of progress. It may not feel fast enough when you have cancer. But there are more treatment options now than there were even 5 years ago.
Today doctors better understand how to find many cancers in the early stages. They also have more treatments to try if one doesn’t work.
The more researchers learn about it, the more they understand how different one kind of cancer is from the other.
For example, scientists have learned that breast cancers aren’t all the same. There are four main types, and each has specific treatments.
Cancer researchers are looking into things like what causes specific kinds of cancer to grow so they can develop treatments to stop it. This includes drugs that attack the way a cancer cell works, and treatments that use your body’s immune system to target cancer cells.
In doctor-speak, there’s been a dramatic improvement in outcomes. This means fewer people are dying from cancer, but there’s still no cure for it.
What About Natural or Alternative Treatments?
Until medical professionals find a cure for cancer, it’s smart to consider every treatment that might save your life or make you feel better, safely. And to discuss all your options with your doctor.
Whether it’s a medical, natural, or alternative treatment, ask these questions:
- What data can you show me that this treatment works?
- What is the expected benefit of this treatment?
- What is the expected downside of this treatment?
- Will this help me live a longer life?
- Will this help me live the rest of my life comfortably?
- What is the likelihood that this treatment will actually cure me?
- Is this treatment approved by the FDA?
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Consider the source: Is this treatment promoted through a trustworthy outlet, like a national cancer magazine or organization? Or is it a miracle cure advertisement you saw on social media?
Any device, pill, powder, cream, tea, oil, or kit that claims to treat cancer is supposed to be approved or cleared by the FDA. But there are bogus products out there.
Watch out for these red flags:
- One treatment that claims to cure any or many kinds of cancer
- Personal stories instead of facts and data
- Phrases like “all natural” and “miracle cure”
- Claims that its more effective than chemotherapy
No “alternative” or natural cancer treatments have been proven to cure cancer. But there are some safe non-medical treatments — like acupuncture, massage, meditation, and yoga — that help offset side effects like fatigue, nausea, and pain.
Therapies that you do in addition to regular cancer care are called “complementary” or “integrative” practices. It’s always best to tell your doctor first, especially if you’re considering supplements. You’ll want your doctor to check on what’s safe for you to try.
Stephen Edge, MD, surgical oncologist; vice president of healthcare outcomes and policy, Department of Cancer Prevention, Roswell Park Comprehensive Center, Buffalo, NY.
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Roswell Park Comprehensive Care Center: “A Cure for Cancer: What’s Taking So Long?”
Canadian Cancer Society: “How Cancer Starts, Grows and Spreads.”
FDA: “Products Claiming to ‘Cure’ Cancer Are A Cruel Deception,” “6 Tip-Offs to Rip-Offs: Don’t Fall for Health Fraud Scams.”