Sooner or later, we'll all develop cancer. The only people who fail to develop cancer are those struck down by other causes; you should think of cancer as less a disease and more a natural consequence of mammalian biochemistry, a form of runaway failure of cellular processes that are normally vital to health and longevity. The biochemical damage that occurs with aging makes the failures that cause cancer ever more likely to occur, and also renders the immune system ever less able to destroy cancerous cells in their earliest stages. If you're a mature individual, the chances are that your immune system has destroyed a few very early stage cancers already, and you are none the wiser. But that defense system is slowly failing with age, just like the rest of your biology.
I should add that there are, as ever in biology, a few noteworthy exceptions to my sweeping statements above, such as the naked mole rat. But even there I'd wager these animals would develop cancer if they but lived long enough - they just have a better first line of defense than we do.
Given the apparent inevitability of cancer, why am I unconcerned? In short, I have perhaps two or three decades to go before I enter the high risk years for developing cancer. I am confident that by that time, very effective targeted cancer therapies with few side-effects will be widely available. Consider that:
- Cancer research is perhaps the most highly funded and widely supported of any modern distributed medical development program.
- Over the past five years, very impressive anti-cancer technology demonstrations have been made. These are a new breed of targeted therapy, built using the latest tools of modern biotechnology. Immune cells, viruses, or nanoparticles are engineered to home in on the distinctive surface chemistry of cancer cells - and then destroy them.
- With a sufficiently good targeted therapy, even aggressive metastasis of cancer becomes a minor inconvenience. Those spreading cancer cells will still be found and killed, no matter where they are in the body.
- The new breed of cancer therapies are as well placed as any new biotechnology could expect to be to make their way through the horrors of an FDA approval process. A decade and many fortunes will be lost to regulation, but commercial therapies will emerge - and if not in the US, elsewhere in the world. Medical tourism to destinations outside the US will itself be a huge and thriving economy a decade from now if the FDA continues its present path.
Cancer is, by and large, not a rapid or unexpected killer. It is certainly not faster than the time taken to apply a targeted therapy of the sort presently under development in the laboratory. Think of a worst case scenario: a brain cancer discovered late and already well into the process of metastasis. You started to have headaches and blurred vision, saw a physician, and learned that, without treatment, you only have a few months left to live. If that were today, you would have to come to terms with your fate and your ill luck. But in 2030, your status would place you at the head of the line for a clinical appointment, and within a week you would undergo an infusion of biological killing machines - viruses, assembled nanoparticles, or some form of natural or artificial cell - configured to recognize and slay your cancer. A month later, there isn't a trace left of your advanced tumor and its offshoots.
This is why I am not worried about cancer. The plausible future is one in which we will all develop cancer, and very few of us will be any more than slightly inconvenienced by it.