Why is cancer so hard to figure out?

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Why is cancer so hard to figure out?

In: Biology

Cancer, at its core, is a normal human cell that reproduces too much. In order to fight it, we have to develop methods of attacking the cancer without attacking the other human cells around it that actually work. Different methods try different ways to target it, but generally speaking developing a procedure that only kills cells that reproduce too fast is difficult. Its not like it has different chemical receptors that would bind to certain things: it acts just like any normal cell most of the time.

Cancer is when someone’s own cells stop behaving correctly and replicate out of control. Our cells are like very small sealed bags, and they look basically the same from the outside (if you can see them at all) but die if they are popped.

So the challenge is figuring out how to kill the cancerous cells without killing the patient’s good cells along with it. It is like an alien invader started to make perfect copies of humans and infiltrate our society and you were trying to stop the bad ones without killing the good people.

Except you are trying to do this from space with a giant laser cannon so the individuals themselves are too small to even see directly.

Cancer is a catch-all term for what are dozens of separate diseases that all share the common feature that they are normal human cells of whatever organ/system involved that are reproducing at a very fast rate, out of control. The idea of a “cure” for cancer is a mistaken one because pharmaceutical treatments generally correspond only to one or a few types.

So it’s hard to “figure out” because each cancer type is an entity unto itself.

There are two big challenges with cancer:

1. “Cancer” isn’t just one disease. It’s hundreds or thousands of different variations. Curing cancer is like trying to cure “sick.” Some forms of “sick” are a whole lot easier to cure than others.

2. Cancer cells are fundamentally human. That makes it hard to find something that kills cancer cells but not the patient. With something like a bacterial infection you can find a medicine that kills bacteria but not human cells by exploiting the differences between them. The differences between a healthy human cell and a cancerous human cell are far smaller.

Think of crime. “Crime” isn’t one thing, it’s a blanket term for all criminal acts. Not only are there different types of crimes, but every individual crime itself is different, so the way we investigate these crimes are different also. We deal with murder differently than we do auto theft, which we treat differently from shoplifting, and so on. There isn’t just one one-size-fits-all way of fighting crime.

It’s the same with cancer. “Cancer” isn’t just one disease, it’s a blanket term. Just like crime, not only are there different types of cancer, but every individual case of cancer is different.