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What It's Like Hearing About New 'Cancer Cures' as Someone With Cancer

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Last week the internet buzzed with the news that an Israeli biopharmaceutical company had claimed they would have the first “complete cure” for cancer within a year. The news spread across sites from Forbes to the New York Post and Fox News, and no doubt made it to the news feeds of millions of people with cancer (and their loved ones) around the world.

I saw it, too. And I saw various responses on social media from the cancer community, medics and academics.  As someone living with cancer, I want to talk about what it’s like hearing about possible “cancer cures.”

I must confess, I try not to get too excited. I pay attention and I hope. And I believe that one day there will be treatment for all cancers. But too excited I get not. Here is why.

Cancer treatment has come a long way. As someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer twice and lives with the disease I have benefited from progress. Here in the U.K., the mainstream treatment approach I received first in 2012 has already changed for people diagnosed with the same type of breast cancer now. Something similar may apply to wherever you live.

But this is not to say that progress is shared evenly across the world, countries and even regions within the same country.

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What is on offer or not can depend on where you live, your health service, finances, your own health circumstances to mention a few variables. It can even depend on your hospital and medical team. Different oncologists may have different views on what is the “right” treatment approach for you.

Indeed, you may need to get different opinions, and then make up your own mind. I know. I have. And I can tell you, it is not easy. Because I am not a specialist. And I don’t want to come across as a “difficult” patient. Because I want to live, as best as I can. I am a single income household. I need to work. And I want to work, for as long as I can.

I am not medically qualified or trained in biochemistry and such to know how likely it is, to come up with a single “cure” that applies to all cancers. Perhaps it will be a gradual thing. I hope I am wrong. And even if I am wrong, how long before it may become available to all who need it?

And then, more often than not, you come across views and counter-arguments why such possible cures may be flawed. Medical and research terms are said, which we may not always understand. And after a while you may give up following the conversation.

Then there may be conspiracy theories about why certain treatments may be not be further developed or widely available. Talk about power, money and influence.

And all the while people are suffering and dying.

What about the cost of such a drug, the international and local approval and funding processes new drugs need to undergo?

I am trying to be realistic and ask myself: “Would it help me?” I would like to think so. But I find it difficult to think so. Because it takes hope, determination, trust, possibly also advocacy skills, money and energy.

Currently, on most days I have enough of all. But I also know there are days, when living with the constant uncertainty of a chronic illness like cancer is draining.

Wondering whether there will be a cancer cure or not, that is more uncertainty and disappointment draining my energy. That’s why I tend to pay attention to such developments from afar. And I try not to get excited.

I have been here before. When media reports do not necessarily share the small print, which may say that a treatment is not suitable for all cancers, results may vary from patient to patient, treatment may not (yet) be available where I live, and I cannot afford it privately, etc.

Chronic illness like cancer can make you cautious, even with “good” news.

Cancer is unpredictable. Without wanting to sound flippant — I can write this today and be dead by the time you read it. And some may say, don’t so morbid, you might also get run over by a car. I am not morbid, I am realistic — on my terms. And you need to be realistic on yours.

How you take news about potential “cancer cures” will also depend on the state of your health, your diagnosis and prognosis.

I sometimes find that those around us (relatives and friends) can get more excited than us, who have the disease. Because theirs can be a helpless place. Researching options, willing us on to hold out, not to give up — that is often all those around us feel they can do.

But let’s not forget the many of us who have no such support, who may be on their own. And those of us who may prefer to be left alone.

As someone living with cancer who also works in the field, I am no stranger to sudden health deterioration and death due to cancer. While I am trying to be open to hope and possibilities, I also have to be open to sudden change and death. This can make living with cancer a surreal experience, when you try and juggle extreme emotions and points of view.

Having said all that, I cannot ignore new treatment choices and medicines that may become available. Whenever I see something about it, I try to find out at least a bit and file it away for future reference. The time may come when I need to know, or need to challenge and ask why I don’t get “XYZ” and what it may take to get it.

I feel I owe it to myself to remain informed. Rightly or wrongly I feel I cannot fully trust others with decisions affecting my health. It is my responsibility, and one place where I need have a say, while I am well enough to do so.

Getting excited about possible cancer cures should be straightforward. But for me it isn’t. It is as complex, surreal and unpredictable as cancer itself.

Originally published: February 5, 2019
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