Everyone is going to die. That’s not the “good thing,” just inevitable. Medicine and public health efforts have defeated many common causes of death, at least in wealthier countries. We don’t die from the traditional childhood diseases like measles. Smallpox is gone and India is about to be declared free of polio. Less and less is the flu, bubonic plague, even AIDS a massive killer. With reduced cigarette smoking, life expectancy has gone up. Hearts can be repaired and we see deaths from heart disease decline. Overweight contributes to heart disease and is still fairly intractable, but I hope we’ll make progress there, too. Why is cancer still our bane?
Cancer is a large category of diseases. Some are easier to attack than others. Recent discoveries reveal that one cancer in five seems to be caused by bacteria or viruses. As the vaccine against human papilloma virus shows, we are defeating these cancers. Some cancers are caused by synthetic chemicals. While this source is surprisingly small, better understanding and regulation will reduce it as a cause. There is encouraging progress fighting childhood and early-stage cancers. They can often be held off indefinitely.
But cancer is the flip-side of being alive. As pointed out by George Johnson at http://nyti.ms/1kv90ty,
For most cancers the only identifiable cause is entropy, the random genetic mutations that are an inevitable part of multicellular life.” In other words, aging.
A colony of symbiotic cells – that’s the arresting image of what each of us is. Each type of cell is too specialized today to live independently, but each still retains the ability to evolve. When a group of cells starts to out-compete the rest of its body’s ecosystem, it’s a cancer.
So if you live long enough and outwit the other causes of death, cancer is what will get you in the end. But not for a very long time. That’s why it’s a good thing.
For another promising (not yet proven!) way to outwit cancer, see this post.