Wednesday, February 07, 2007

February 7, 2007 - A Glimpse of the Grail

Today I read a news article about a breakthrough in the field of cancer research. It seems researchers at the University of Michigan have, for the first time, identified stem cells that lead to the growth of pancreatic cancer tumors. This is very good news, because it gives pharmaceutical-company researchers a target to aim for, as they seek new medicines to block the advance of this deadly disease.

I remember Dr. Lerner telling me, as he first diagnosed my cancer, that if – hypothetically speaking – I could choose which form of cancer to have, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma would be one of the leading choices. That’s because modern medical science offers several effective treatment options. Research breakthroughs in the past ten or twenty years are largely responsible for this remarkable progress.

If that’s true, then pancreatic cancer is one of the worst forms of the disease to have. When medical tests reveal malignant pancreatic cells, doctors have little recourse other than to dispense the ominous advice, “It’s time to get your affairs in order.” Often, these patients’ lives will be measured in weeks, not months. The article about the University of Michigan breakthrough provides these grim statistics:

“About 33,700 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and about 32,300 will die from it. Five year survival rates are a dismal 3 percent. The disease is difficult to detect early and is often diagnosed at advanced stages. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of patients can benefit from surgery.”

A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is a virtual death sentence, with no appeal. Yet, now, for the first time, there’s some hope on the horizon. An effective drug is still years off – sadly, not soon enough for those being diagnosed today – but it surely will come, eventually.

I know a person who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He’s still alive today – not because his disease was cured, but because he was misdiagnosed. In the space of a week or two, he went on the emotional roller-coaster ride to end all emotional roller-coaster rides, as subsequent tests revealed the doctors’ mistake.

We live in remarkable times. “Finding a cure for cancer” remains the holy grail of medical research – and, like the holy grail of ancient legend, it may be just as elusive. Yet, as today’s medical knights-errant ride off in search of their shining prize, they’re discovering all sorts of lesser cures along the way. It’s even possible – as some researchers have speculated – that there may be no single disease called, simply, “cancer.” The word may refer to a large, loose-knit family of disorders that display some common characteristics, but which won't all respond to a single treatment. If that’s true, then victory will ultimately be achieved through the cumulative weight of many small breakthroughs, rather than a single, paradigm-busting discovery.

Either way, the University of Michigan report is good news. For patients with every form of cancer, this sort of thing gives us hope.

No comments: