By: Bill Wilson, Staff Writer
For Jimmy Carter, the news could not have been more grim. In the summer of 2015 he learned that he was suffering from melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. Even more ominous was the fact that the illness had invaded his liver and brain.
Most observers, including medical experts, felt that Carter’s odds of surviving were slim. Melanoma is highly treatable when caught early. But the survival odds for patients fall drastically when the cancer spreads from the skin to other organs.
Adding to the dire prognosis was Carter’s advanced age; in 2015 he was 91 years old, well beyond the average lifespan for American men. Friends and family of the 39th president quietly prepared to say their goodbyes to the famed statesman and humanitarian.
Fast forward to March of 2016. Carter announces some shocking news: his cancer has vanished. The world is amazed at the unexpected turn of events.
As of summer 2018, the now 94-year-old Carter remains vigorous and healthy. He writes, travels, attends church, and even helps to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, his favorite charity. His body remains cancer-free, though he continues to receive periodic treatments to ensure it never reappears.
Carter’s doctors achieved this near-miraculous result by using a breakthrough medication called Pembrolizumab along with highly targeted doses of radiation. Their astounding achievement spotlights recent medical advances that could soon make cancer a thing of the past. But how do these game-changing therapies work? Let’s take a closer look.
Better Weapons for a Wily Enemy
In 2015, pioneering cancer researcher and medical doctor Dr. Vincent Devita, Jr. published a book titled The Death of Cancer, which chronicles medical science’s centuries-long quest to cure this most dreaded of diseases. In the text, Devita shows that cancer’s longevity comes from its ability to reinvent itself in the face of new therapies.
For decades, Devita explains, researchers have developed medicines that attacked weak spots in cancer’s armor, only to watch the disease mutate into new forms impervious to existing approaches. A drug that was promising one day could be useless within a year. The problem was not with the doctors themselves but with the limited tools at their hands.
A Bold New Approach
The deadlock between science and cancer began to tilt in humanity’s favor back in the 1980s when scientists created the first immunotherapy drugs. “Immunotherapy” is a big word used to describe a simple concept: nothing is better at fighting illness than the body’s own built-in defenses. The challenge with enlisting the patient’s immune system in the war against cancer is that malignant tumors are able to disguise themselves as ordinary cells. Immunotherapies rip away this mask, helping the body to recognize its true enemy. When this happens, bloodborne defenses target and destroy invading cancer, with success rates of up to 90%.
Cure or Treatment?
It’s important to understand that none of the therapies discussed in this article are “cures” in the strict scientific sense of the word. Rather, they’re new forms of treatment that are amazingly effective at controlling and, in some cases, eradicating the diseases at which they’re aimed.
One helpful way to understand the progress against cancer is by comparing it to the crusade against type 2 diabetes. Once, diabetics had few ways to manage their symptoms. This began to change as medical science introduced new options for these patients. Nowadays, many type 2 diabetics are able to live normal, active lives free of major health problems.
The same is increasingly true of people with cancer. The illness has gone from being a virtual death sentence in the 1950s to becoming a manageable condition here in the early 2000s. Researchers predict that, by 2050, new cancer cases will become almost unheard of in people under 80 years old.
For cancer, the handwriting is on the wall. It will soon join smallpox and polio in the list of extinct or extremely rare conditions. All of this comes as welcome news to everyone whose life has been touched by this relentless plague. For those now alive, as well as those yet to be born, the future of cancer therapy looks bright indeed.