Jakub – Year 12 Student
Editor’s Note: Year 12 student Jakub writes here for the GSAL Science Magazine on the serious issue of the treatment of cancer, one of the greatest challenges in modern medicine. This is Jakub’s second publication in The GSAL Journal; you can read more from Jakub here. CPD
[Featured image: FDA approves first cancer treatment based on genetic makeup, not tumor location. (Cancer Treatment Centers of America)]
A Guide to Cancer Treatment
‘Cancer’ is a collective term for several hundred diseases associated with abnormal cell division. It is characterised by the occurrence of a malignant tumour, which can spread from its original site by local, lymphatic spread or by hematogenous spread (blood) by a process called metastasis. This contrasts with benign tumours, which do not spread.
The most common effects of cancer include a lump, abnormal bleeding, or unexpected weight loss. Most of the time, however, any noticeable effects or symptoms occur late, often when the cure is not possible. There is hardly any doubt that advanced malignancies are the biggest killer in the population under 78. It has become a great challenge in modern medicine, with the disease responsible for 28% of all deaths in the UK (2017).
How is cancer treated currently?
The types of treatment that patients need depend on the type of cancer, its advancement (staging) and presence in organs caused by metastasis (spread). Last, but certainly not the least, the patient’s general health and possibly other conditions may affect this choice as well.
This physically removes the tumour from the body. It is effective against localised solid tumours; however, it is less potent for conditions like leukaemia (one of the blood malignancies) or for cancers that have already spread to the distant parts of the body.
There are several ways this can be achieved beyond the still practised, ‘classical’ excision with a surgeon’s knife:
- Cryosurgery – liquid nitrogen freezes abnormal tissue, preventing it from being a threat. Cryosurgery is primarily used to treat early-stage skin cancer, but its effectiveness gradually decreases as metastases progress.
- Lasers – here powerful beams of visible light used to cut through tissue by its burning and evaporation. Lasers can focus very accurately on tiny areas, so they can be used for precise surgeries minimising collateral damage. This can also be utilised as an effective preventative treatment removing some benign tumours with a potential to turn into malignancy.
- Photodynamic Therapy uses light-sensitive drugs with the potential to be absorbed more by the tumour cells. When exposed to specific light length, these drugs become active and kill cancer cells. This is usually used to treat skin malignancies.
Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and minimise the size of the tumour.
Radiation destroys cancerous growth or hinders its advancement by altering cellular DNA sequences. With damaged DNA, cancer cells cannot repair, they stop dividing and eventually die. Dead cells are broken down and removed by the body with a potential removal of a large portion of the tumour or its entity.
This treatment involves drugs which damage and kill cancer cells. This is the most common type of cancer treatment. This type of treatment is effective against many types of cancer. For some advanced cases, this may be the sole treatment patients receive. In patients with less advanced disease, it is often complemented by another type of treatment described here.
Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy i.e. a treatment that enhances the body’s response to the disease. The immune system is made up of white blood cells and the lymphatic system. As a part of its normal function, it can detect and destroy abnormal cells thus preventing the growth of many malignancies. For this reason, immune cells, such as phagocytes can often be found in and around tumours. Certain type of these cells, called tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL), are an effect of the immune system responding to the tumour presence. Immunotherapy then tries to simulate these highly desired cells and improve the immune system’s effectiveness in the fight.
Certain types of tumour growth depends on hormonal stimulation. The most notable examples are breast or prostate cancers. By blocking receptors for relevant hormones, oestrogen and testosterone respectively, therapy can significantly slow down and effectively control the disease.
Stem Cell Transplant
Sometimes the treatment patients receive is so potent that it may destroy the bone marrow producing blood cells, causing detrimental side-effects. Like in certain types of cancers affecting the bone marrow, such as leukaemia. Stem cell transplant, therefore, is a lifesaving procedure restoring blood-forming stem cells destroyed by extremely high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Its importance is related to the function of the bone marrow and the blood-forming stem cells it contains.
Despite all these treatment strategies widely implemented in healthcare, the success in treating cancer still largely depends on the timing the disease is diagnosed. Unfortunately, early cancer diagnostics showed relatively limited progress in recent years. Nevertheless, with more and more governments declaring the intention to increase funding and research into new technologies such as nanomedicine, we should remain hopeful that one-day cancer can be virtually eliminated.
Cancer Research UK. Cancer Statistics for the UK. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics-for-the-uk#:~:text=There%20are%20around%20165%2C000%20cancer,77%2C700%20cancer%20deaths%20in%202017. [Accessed 7 June 2020]
Author Unknown, 2015. Cancer Treatment News, Research And Analysis – The Conversation. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/global/topics/cancer-treatment-7080> [Accessed 7 June 2020].
Nagourney, R., 2011. Youtube. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAGhNhrHMJs> [Accessed 7 June 2020].
NCI, 2016. Stem Cell Transplants In Cancer Treatment. [online] National Cancer Institute. Available at: <https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/stem-cell-transplant> [Accessed 7 June 2020].