The picture is not without bright spots. From 1975 to 2005, death rates from childhood leukemia plummeted from 75 percent to 27 percent. Prognostic testing and early intervention against colorectal cancer have saved roughly 80,000 lives in the last 20 years. And survival rates in testicular cancer have more than tripled since 1973.
Still, those isolated victories do not a cure make. “Forty years ago, we thought curing cancer would be easier,” says Dr. Stephen Prescott, OMRF’s president. “But in many ways, we were dealing with a complete scientific mystery.”
Prescott should know. He spent decades probing how cells communicate and how mistakes in these processes allow cells to develop into cancerous tumors. Consequently, this area has been the focus of much research, with scientists searching for ways to interfere with this process in order to stop the growth of malignant tumors. Prescott’s work in the lab ultimately led him to the helm of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, where he served as director for six years before coming to OMRF.
“We started the so-called war on cancer with the mistaken assumption that cancer was one thing,” he says. “But really, it’s many different problems that share certain common features.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 100 different diseases sit beneath cancer’s umbrella. Each of these conditions is marked by abnormal cells dividing out of control and invading other cells. These illnesses also share the ability to metastasize—to spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymphatic systems.
Yet after that, things get trickier. In most cancers, the uncontrolled growth leads to clumps of abnormal cells. But in others, tumors rarely form. Lung cancers grow quickly. Prostate cancer typically progresses at a slow pace. The human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer. Other cancers seem to have no connection to viruses. If there’s a weak link that unites these many illnesses, scientists have yet to find it.
When you examine something at length and in depth, conventional wisdom suggests the picture should become clearer. But, Prescott says, the opposite has proven true in the realm of cancer research. “The more we’ve studied cancer, the more complex it seems.”
PHYSICIANS DIAGNOSED DEBBIE OCKER with breast cancer in June of 2003. That summer she underwent a pair of surgeries. Her first round of chemotherapy followed, just weeks before the beginning of the fall semester.
The treatment left her fatigued, but she resolved not to let it disrupt her teaching. Still, as summer came to an end, she faced a problem she could not have imagined only months before. “I was panicking, because I could not find a wig to fit my head,” she remembers. “I thought I was going to have to show up the first day of school bald-headed.”
A last-minute acquisition of a right-sized wig eased her fears. She donned the new locks and topped them with a cap. But artificial hairpieces, she soon discovered, can itch.