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Cancer explained

Why haven't we cured cancer yet?

18th March 2021

Billions of pounds have been raised, invested and spent on cancer research over many decades, but we still haven’t cured cancer. We asked our experts to explain just why that is - and why we still urgently need to fund more cancer research.

There's a common myth that someone is 'hiding' the cure for cancer. We explain why that simply isn't true.

The short answer:

The longer answer:

It's important to remember that we have come a long way - overall, cancer survival in the UK has doubled in the last 40 years. In the 1970s only 25% of people with cancer would survive 10 years or more after their diagnosis. Today that figure is 50%. 

But cancer is a complex disease - and the fact is that we won't ever find one single cure. Here's why:

Cancer is not just one disease

To understand why we haven’t cured cancer yet, the most important thing to know is that cancer is not one disease. Instead, it’s an umbrella term for more than 200 distinct diseases – that’s why we fund research into any type of cancer.

Each broad cancer type has many sub-types, and they all look and behave differently because they are different on a genetic and molecular level. This is because cancer arises from our own cells, so each cancer can be as different and diverse as people are.

Myriads of mutations exist

Underlying the more than 200 different cancers are a myriad of different genetic mutations. Every cancer is caused by a different set of mutations and as the tumour grows, more and more mutations accumulate. This means that every tumour has an individual set of mutations, so a drug that works for one cancer patient, might have absolutely no effect on another.

That’s why we fund researchers like Jesus Gil, whose research project aims to understand how specific genetic mutations can lead to cells becoming cancerous.

Cancer cells within a single tumour are not identical

Not every cancer cell in a tumour will have the same genetic mutations as a neighbouring cancer cell. That means that treatments can often kill one type of cell in a tumour, while others survive the treatment, allowing the tumour to grow again.

Treatments can eventually stop working

The genetic mutations that cancer cells acquire over time mean that the cells change the way they behave. This can be an incredibly difficult problem during treatment because the mutations can lead to cancer cells developing resistance to a treatment over time, making it ineffective.

If that happens, the patient will then have to be put on to a different treatment – but again, the cancer could develop resistance to the new drug. This is why we fund researchers like Maite Huarte, who is trying to figure out how to overcome this resistance.

Cancer cells are really good at staying alive

Normal cells have certain mechanisms in place that stop them from growing or dividing too much. Cancer cells have lost these control mechanisms and can develop an arsenal of tricks to avoid being killed.

That’s why we fund researchers like Vincenzo Giambra, who aims to understand how cancer cells become such survival experts.

Cancer research like the projects funded by Worldwide Cancer Research offers hope that one day we will overcome all of these problems and end cancer - and we have already made incredible progress. 

"As a researcher and doctor who has seen first-hand the lifesaving potential of new targeted therapies for cancer, my opinion is that we are far from helpless in the face of cancer."

While individual cancer diagnoses remain one of the scariest conversations people can have with their doctor; it is worth stepping back to look at the bigger picture. Over the last 40 years, research has made astonishing progress and survival rates for many cancers have increased dramatically over the last decades. Survival rates for many cancers have soared.

Years of research means that nine out of ten people diagnosed with testicular cancer today will still be here 10 years down the line. Three-quarters of children diagnosed with cancer now survive their disease beyond 10 years – a huge improvement from about a third of children diagnosed with cancer 40 years ago.

- Dr John Maher, a clinical immunologist and cancer researcher at King’s College London

Thanks to you we have been able to fund lifesaving research for over 40 years. But there is still a long way to go. That’s why we need your help to continue starting new cures for cancer.

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