Reflections: Waiting for a cancer cure is like waiting for Godot

We have been waiting for a cure for cancer for what seems an eternity.

And while a lot can happen between today and the rest of time, we may be waiting forever.

Cancer is a word that weeps with menace and likely leaves more blisters on the heart than any other disease.

After decades of intensive research, the solution to end this dreaded condition remains elusive.

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Human beings are frail vessels and often no match for a disease with such an uproarious appetite for destruction.

Significantly, the number of cancer cases and related deaths worldwide is estimated to double over the next 20 to 40 years.

Swallowing that statistic is comparable to swallowing a gulp of flame.

The failure to cure cancer is often explained by the complexity of the problem: There are so many different types of cancer, so many different genes and biochemical mechanisms, and every patient is different.

The growing cancer epidemic is not a problem that medical science is about to solve.

More people are getting, living with cancer and dying from cancer than ever before.

Does that mean that modern medicine has failed -- or that we haven’t done enough?

On the contrary, more than a million people have been saved by recent improvements in cancer therapy. General life expectancy has increased, much of it because of better health care, and the United Nations expects the number of people older than 60 to double by 2050. We’re a lot better at fighting cancer. We just can’t cure it.

Current optimism stems from recent breakthroughs in the field of immunotherapy. The ability to direct immune cells to seek out and eliminate cancer cells may take us a long way toward curing everybody who gets cancer at a young age.

But not even the ingenuity of immunotherapy will cure cancer for everyone, forever. All of our cells, including those that make up the immune system, are subject to aging. We are essentially temporary cell colonies evolved to relay life to the next generation, and as long as we are human, there will always be another cancer.

Mankind was not built to perch on the ledge of immortality -- at least not in this world.

Our body is not a hive honeycombed for ultimate survival.

The main reason for our shortcoming is simple and resides in the dark underbelly of our makeup: Cancer is closely linked to the very process of aging. In fact, cancer and aging are two sides of the same coin. The risk of getting cancer increases significantly with age, especially after the age of 50.

Accordingly, the longer we live, the more cancer there will be, and regardless of medical advances, we can be very sure that the burden of cancer will increase, not diminish, for decades to come.

Destiny indeed is a mistress lacking fidelity.

But what about people who overcome cancer -- don’t they prove it is curable? It’s not that easy.

Even if they are cured, they live on with an increased risk of getting cancer again. First, cancer cells may still be hiding in their body. And chances are these people have some kind of genetic or environmental predisposition for cancer. The chemo and radiation therapy that saved them may promote cancer later in life.

Most important, all their cells are getting older and more prone to going astray. Every time we cure a person of cancer, we produce a person with an increased probability of getting cancer again.

The irony is thick enough to slice with a steak knife: The more people we cure, the more the epidemic expands like a weather balloon.

It is the Catch-22 of oncology and from a stark perspective, it leaves us one step from nowhere.