WHAT IS CANCER AND HOW IS IT TREATED?
Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body begin to reproduce quickly and out of control. This forms a growing group of cancer cells in the body, called a tumour. The tumour can split and spread to other parts of the body, where it continues to grow. There are over 100 types of cancer, and there are many methods available to treat them.
Treatments aim to remove all cancer cells from the body so no tumours remain:
A common treatment is surgery, in which tumours are removed in an operation. Often this is followed by radiotherapy: the use of radiation to destroy remaining cancer cells.
The body’s defence system is called the immune system. It is not triggered by cancer because tumours begin life as normal body cells, so they go undetected. Scientists can use chemicals to help the immune system recognise and attack cancer cells.
Sometimes drugs can be taken to target and destroy tumours.
Often these treatments are combined for the highest chance of success. Personalised medicine is made possible by a wide range of treatment options so that the best possible combination can be selected.
WHAT IS PERSONALISED MEDICINE?
All people – and all cancers – are different. As such, treatments should be suited to that patient to have the highest chance of success. Personalised medicine is a method of cancer treatment that applies tailored treatments to different individuals.
Tumours are often classified by where they grow in the body, such as ‘breast’ or ‘lung’ cancer. In personalised medicine, the tumours are instead classified by their genetics. Just as individual people have their own set of genetics, individual cancers also contain unique DNA. Analysing this is the first important step in identifying the best course of action to eliminate the cancer, as tumour genetics reveal which treatments will be most effective.
WHEN IS PERSONALISED MEDICINE USED?
Simple personalised tests can be used to identify people at a high risk of developing cancer. Lifestyle changes such as improving diet or exercise may be recommended, and this could stop the cancer from developing at all. Also, if doctors know that a person is more at risk, they can run more frequent tests and identify the cancer early if it does develop. Early detection helps by increasing the range of treatments able to be used.
Without personalised medicine, cancer treatment may follow a ‘trial-and-error’ approach. This means a treatment is tried, then continued if successful, or changed if not. Personalised medicine uses genetics to identify the most effective action, so the most suitable treatment is used straight away.
THE FUTURE OF CANCER TREATMENT:
Cancer is a complex set of diseases, with each tumour presenting unique challenges, so the dream of a single ‘cure’ is not a practical one. However, more and more cancers are being cured each day as a result of genome analysis, ongoing drug development, and the combination of techniques into personalised treatment plans.