Can cancer really be cured?

By Chris Carlson

In a legislative body it is called asking for suspension of the day’s business in order to make a personal point. Today, I rise in like manner and ask readers’ indulgence to hear me out.

The “Big C,” as some call cancer, can strike anyone anytime in one’s life cycle and just about any part of one’s body. Because actual cause is hard to pinpoint, for many it is seen as a “death sentence,” a disease without a cure. Many fear hearing the word ever cross their doctor’s lips. The same cancer can affect people differently, moving aggressively in one and slowly in another. Only God knows why.

Because of research advances and various techniques involved with early intervention, one’s cancer can often be stalled. Some call it “remission,” but one doesn’t hear the word “cured” too often anymore. It used to be if one went five years without a recurrence they were pronounced “cured.”

Too many instances of the “cured patient” being struck again have occurred, however. It used to be also that when one contracted cancer, after a battery of tests, most doctors, if asked, would give one an estimate on how long they had before all the sand is through the top half of their hour glass. That just doesn’t happen anymore.

For example, in November 2005 when I was diagnosed with Stage IV (meaning “almost gone”) of a rare form of a neuroendocrine cancer, I was told I had six months left. I’m obviously still here 10 years later.

Like most folks, once one gets over the initial shock, my wife and I did our research. We discovered the world’s best hospital for treating this type of cancer was MD Anderson in Houston, Texas. I bundled up all my CTs, all my MRIs, my blood tests, my colonoscopies, shipped them off to this world-renowned hospital and asked for them to see me and to provide a second opinion.
A few weeks later I received their answer — “no.” I was bluntly told I was too far gone, that it was hopeless, and I should go home to prepare to die. I was stunned. I’d never heard of one being denied a second opinion.

I called the managing partner of a large, prestigious Houston law firm, Bracewell & Patterson. One of his major clients was the Texas Medical Association. Thus, a call went to the director of MD Anderson from the head of the major medical association in Texas. The director refused to over-rule his doctors.

Things happen for a reason, however. On the advice of two friends I turned to a relatively new Cancer Center: The Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah. I met with its team of doctors, and we drew up an aggressive attack strategy, which so far has worked for almost 10 years.

I confess though I’ll never feel that MD Anderson is as good as they claim to be. Nor will I ever recommend them to anyone. When asked, I’ll suggest folks look into the Mayo Clinic or Huntsman.

This lament is prompted by a spate of ads currently running on major news channels like CNN in which MDA comes awfully close to claiming it can cure cancer. How else is one to interpret the last scene in which they strike through the word cancer following a succession of “talking heads,” the last couple that say cancer has lost.

The field of cancer care is becoming increasingly competitive simply because there are vast profits to be made. This is no justification, however, for strongly implying that they have or will beat cancer.

I’ve had almost 10 years of successively holding my always-fatal form of cancer at bay. I’ve never claimed to have been cured nor in a state of remission, because I’m not. Like many others, it is a day to day, 24/7 battle. Some of us are lucky enough to keep fighting for a long time.

My experience suggests that unless and until doctors can alter one’s DNA before birth, there will never be a cure for cancer. Why? Because I think all cancers are part and parcel of the natural dying process we all undergo.

We can stall, stymie, hold at bay for a long time in some cases, but in the end the Grim Reaper claims us all. In all candor, people should understand cancer in that context. Acceptance of our mortality, strangely enough, is one of the keys to enduring longer than predictions.

The folks at MD Anderson should be honest enough to say that.

A native of Kellogg, journalist Chris Carlson pens his column from his retirement home near Medimont in Northern Idaho. He is a former teacher and was press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andrus.