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CANCER FACT  by Cosmas O. Okoro, Ph.D.

Cancer is a word that instills deep-seated fear because we immediately associate it with grave illness and a high mortality rate.  Almost all of us know someone whose life has been blighted by cancer diagnosis, and who has suffered the prolonged pain of the illness. Cancer patients are forced to tolerate a tough treatment regime with all the accompanying side effects and subsequent problems.  Few people are fortunate enough to escape the distress of cancer over their lifetime, since the frightening statistics would suggest that the vast majority of us will either experience it first hand, or have a loved one afflicted.  However, as we advance our understanding of the mechanisms involved in causing and propagating cancer, we are gradually uncovering a host of new leads and hopes for cures.  Scientists and clinicians diligently and continuosly harness such intelligence and powerful resources, laboring to convert them into practical strides forward, giving us hope for a future where cancer is not a death sentence, but a curable disease.

Cancer is a collection of a number of rather  disparate diseases, all characterized by the uncontrolled proliferation of abnormal cells, which invade and disrupt tissues, beginning locally and then spreading through the body to extend the reach of their destructive behavior.  Both external causes (e.g. chemicals, radiation, viruses) and internal factors (e.g. hormones, immune conditions, inherited genes), acting either alone or in combination, may be responsible for  the initiation and promotion of carcinogenesis.  Furthermore, many years can pass between cause and detection, and with some types of cancer, there exists the obstinate problem of detecting malignant growths  early enough for intervention to stand any chance of success.

The global impact of cancer cannot be  overstated.  It constitutes a major public health problem with an ever growing worldwide occurrence.  In 2003, approximately 1.34 million people were diagnosed with cancer (not including basal and squamous  skin cell cancers) and more than half a million patients died from the disease in United States alone.  The only condition attributed with more deaths per annum is cardiovascular disease, which is responsible for one in every four deaths in the industrialized world.  The American Cancer Society estimates that men have slightly less than a one in two lifetime risk of developing cancer; for women the risk is slightly more than one in three.  Quite apart from the personal suffering caused by this high incidence, there is an immense financial cost to both the individual and society  as a whole in the form of direct medical expenses and lost productivity.  One cannot place a dollar  figure on the  emotional and physical effects of living with a chronic disease.  The continued search for a potent, safe and selective chemotherapeutic agents is a worthwhile undertaking. The success of this venture will translate into a major unburdening for society, not to mention the lives saved.