Why we are Losing the Cancer War… and How to Win.

‘No cancer by 2025’. That was the announcement in the newspapers in January 2015, in response to an £80 million cut in funding from the government to the Cancer Drugs Fund – provided we kept funding drug research and kept paying for expensive cancer drugs, two thirds of which has since been shown to not work, the remaining third adding, on average, three months to life.

[For a fully referenced version of this article read Issue 86 of my 100% Health newsletter.]

An analysis in a leading cancer journal has found that the fund paid out £1.27bn from 2010 to 2016 – an amount that would have paid for an entire year of mainstream cancer drugs for the NHS. The analysis in the Annals of Oncology journal looked at 29 cancer drugs approved for 47 different types of treatment (known as indications), some of which were approved to treat more than one cancer. They found that only 18 of the 47 treatments prolonged the patient’s life, and then only by an average of three months. The top ten cancer drugs generate $40 billion a year. It’s big business. Of course this was a bit of PR for the cancer drug industry and charities that keep promising but not  delivering. We could call it a ‘Nixonism’.

Back in 1971 President Nixon declared war on cancer, predicting victory by 1976. In 1984 the American National Cancer Institute said mortality would be halved by 2003 and eliminated by 2015. Despite the billions of pounds spent on cancer research, raised by well meaning people running millions of collective miles to honour their prematurely dead relatives, things aren’t getting better. They are getting worse. Back in the 70’s the lifetime risk of cancer was 1 in 5, despite everyone smoking. Now it’s crossed the 1 in 3 threshold, and expected to hit 1 in 2 by 2030. Since 1970 the five year survival rate has barely changed from then 49% to now 54% surviving. In the US, more than a million are diagnosed each year and a half a million die from it.

Having crossed the 50% surviving five years line allowed cancer charities to declare ‘more people are living than dying from cancer’ but that’s a pretty lame claim, especially when more are getting it. Also, earlier diagnosis means more survive 5 years. If you take a look at 10 year survival rate it doesn’t look good.

“The war against cancer is unwinnable.” Says Professor Paul Davies, Principal Investigator at Arizona State University’s Center for Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology. He was asked by the American National Institutes of Health to take a look at cancer through the eyes of a physicist. Davies’s estimate of the benefit of chemotherapy drugs is surprisingly small. ‘Once a cancer has metastasised (spread),’ he says ‘drug treatment produces an average increase in life-span of just four and a half weeks compared with forty years ago.’

It’s the environment that counts

So what does he think is going wrong? The current approach of cut (surgery), burn (radiation) and drug (chemotherapy) ignores the critical shift in thinking among lead researchers that it’s the environment around a cancer cell that determines whether it will spread or not. In the same way the major focus on genes that cause cancer hasn’t produced much in the way of meaningful advances, however the study of epi-genetics, that is the environment that turns ‘cancer’ genes on or off, is proving much more fruitful.Other cancer experts agree. Professor Mina Bissell, Distinguished Scientist with Berkeley Lab’s Life Sciences Division at the University of California and an authority on breast cancer, says “Cancer is not a problem with growth. Instead it is a matter of context. Like small-town kids who get lost in the glitz and glamour of the big city, cancer cells can find themselves disoriented when their surroundings change. Soon, they are running amok, behaving inways they never would at home, where their neighbours help keep them grounded.’

Why sugar promotes cancer

One clear example of this is sugar. While smoking accounts for 30% of a woman’s risk for cancer, being obese accounts for 20%. One Italian study estimated that 15 per cent of breast cancer could be attributed to eating sweet foods. Too much insulin, promoted by a high sugar intake, promotes cancer cell growth. If we want a cancer...

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