Why Cancer ‘Cure’ Stories Are Mostly Nonsense

We probably won’t be annihilating all solid tumors any time soon

Gideon M-K; Health Nerd


Pictured: A syringe full of air and ill-fitting gloves. Photo by Kristine Wook on Unsplash

At least once a year, we get a series of media headlines proclaiming that scientists have hit the holy grail. That we’ve found the big one. That the cure for cancer is just around the corner, or potentially already here.

We’ve recently seen a perfect example of this hubbub. News sources across the globe have been touting new research as an almost universal treatment for cancer. According to the press release for the study, the new drug could “annihilate all solid tumors”, which sounds incredibly impressive for a single medication.

Unfortunately for all of us, the most likely outcome for this new drug is that it has no benefit in the treatment of cancer. This is a well-worn track of hyped results that often have little to no meaning for actual humans receiving cancer treatment at all.

The Cycle Of Cancer Hype

Let’s contextualize this story, because the new study is just another symptom of the same disease. When it comes to cancer research — and most pharmaceutical therapeutics — there are a number of steps that researchers and funders have to go through to get a drug on the market:

  1. Identify an interesting molecule
  2. Run preclinical research to see if that molecule does anything to cells in a lab
  3. Phase 1 trials to test the basic impact of the molecule on humans
  4. Phase 2 trials to test the measurable side-effects on humans
  5. Phase 3 trials to test whether the molecule has any identifiable benefits clinically

Most people are at least tangentially aware of this labyrinthine process. We all know drugs take a while to go from conception to fruition, even if we’ve never thought in detail about what that means.

But when you see a story about a pill potentially annihilating tumors, you don’t think cells in a dish, or rats in a cage. Naturally, you assume that the pill is being given to real people like yourself, because why else would you care about the story?