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After a heavy storm, a boy walked along the beach throwing the stranded starfish back into the sea.

A man watching shouted "there are too many of them - it won’t make any difference."

As the boy threw another starfish back into the sea, he smiled and replied "it made a difference to that one!"

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Star Throwers
30 Melton Road
Wymondham
Norfolk NR18 0DB

Telephone:
01953 423304

Email:
info@starthrowers.org.uk

Centre is open Monday - Friday 10am to 4pm

Registered Charity in England & Wales
Number: 1127037

Understanding cancer

Introduction

This page is a guide to Understanding Cancer in general and is for information only. For medical advice specific to your condition, please call us on 01953 423304.

If you are reading this article then the most likely reason is that you are suffering from cancer yourself or someone close to you has the disease and you want to explore both conventional and alternative or complementary methods that can prevent the chances of the disease recurring. On the other hand you may want an independent opinion on advice your oncologist has given you or suggestions on how to improve your chances before you receive surgery or radiotherapy.

If the disease has already recurred then we need to go through possible options on further management.

Unfortunately, recurrent disease is common following the development of cancer and many people feel that the death knell has sounded once that they are told that the cancer is back. However, one needs to understand that the word cancer envelopes hundreds of different diseases and the management of recurrences can differ depending on the type of tumour and whether the recurrence is localised or generalised.

In a few cancers such as lymphomas, further chemotherapy can induce a cure but for the majority of recurrences, chemotherapy will only be effective for a short period of time. The exception to this is that some cancers are responsive to hormone treatment and although not curing the disease, can induce long periods where the person remains in good health.

In non-hormone sensitive tumours further chemotherapy can induce remissions but the cancer becomes increasingly resistant to treatment. Many cancer sufferers in this situation are looking for a cure to their disease and become very disheartened when they are told that their disease is incurable and any treatment is only palliative in nature.

However, there are many cases of cancer sufferers who are alive and well today despite the predictions of their oncologists that their survival would be short lived. The reason why this occurs is not understood and is probably a number of factors. These factors include the type of tumour, the immune response against it and unexplained mechanisms that affect the metabolism and rate of growth of the tumour.

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Management of disease

To understand cancer treatment, we need to put the whole of medicine in perspective and understand the management of all diseases.

All the time we are being told of great medical breakthroughs and the management of many diseases has become very sophisticated. Let us consider some of these breakthroughs and look at how they affect the people suffering from these illnesses.

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Heart disease

The management of heart attacks has totally altered over the last 25 years when the treatment was total bed rest for 4-6 weeks. Drugs were introduced to prevent the heart going into abnormal rhythms which could precipitate further heart attacks. Further progress led to surgery whereby the blocked arteries were bypassed using veins from the legs or alternatively the arteries were reopened by using metal stents.

Then the clot buster drugs were introduced and as long as they were given early they prevented further deaths by clearing the blocked artery that had led to the heart attack.

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Other diseases

Those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis have seen the introduction of joint replacements and also newer drugs which can modify the disease process. Other diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimers disease may be treated in a minority of cases with drugs which can slow the progression of the disease.

However in none of these diseases have we actually induced a cure. The patient who received clot busting treatment for his heart attack, still has clogged up arteries and depends on the use of cholesterol lowering drugs to prevent further heart attacks. The situation is similar for those who have had bypass or stent surgery and many will require further surgery. The patients with rheumatoid arthritis will be improved with their joint replacement surgery but they will continue to have other joint problems as well as many other organs that this disease can affect.

There is no cure for the majority of diseases known to man. The neurologist has the unenviable task of treating patients with neurological diseases which are generally incurable with a few noticeable exceptions such as Vitamin B12 deficiency.

The endocrinologist who looks after those of us suffering from hormone deficiencies such as diabetes or thyroid deficiency at least has the drugs so that once more we can function normally. Again, there is no cure as there is a reliance on having access to the hormone therapy on a daily basis.

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Curable diseases

In reality, the only diseases physicians can cure are infectious in nature and it is important to remember that some of these may not respond to antiviral antifungal or antibiotic treatment due to the development of resistance or unusual mechanisms of invasion such as been seen with the HIV virus which caused AIDS.

If we successfully fend off the infection, there is no usual evidence that the microbe responsible has not been completely eradicated. However should our immune system become depressed for any reason (and often we don't know the reason), then the microbe which was considered eradicated can emerge from the depths of the tissues where it remained dormant and cause disease. Prime examples of this are the chickenpox virus which remains dormant in the nerve cells only to reappear as a painful blistering skin rash known as shingles.

The immune system is sometimes immunosuppressed on purpose. This is necessary to prevent rejection of a transplanted organ by the person receiving it. Unfortunately, organisms such as cytomegalovirus which has remained in the body following a previous infection can raise its ugly head resulting in severe illness.

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis, who have received a new class of drugs known as TNF alpha blockers, feel better because their immune system is dampened down and therefore does not attack the joints and other organs leading to a marked improvement in their symptoms.

However, the organism responsible for tuberculosis which has remained dormant for years under the watchful eye of the immune system is now able to proliferate with the result that some patients have a clinical recurrence of their disease.

It is important to understand from the above examples that physicians rarely cure disease and in medicine cure is limited to the successful treatment of infectious diseases or dependent on surgeons to excise tumours and other diseased tissues and replacing or repairing worn parts.

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Approaching cancer

It is equally important to keep this in mind when you think about your cancer. What is required is to change your attitude to your disease.

If you have recurrent disease which has not responded to conventional therapy or you have been advised by your oncologist that further treatment is unlikely to make your tumour regress then stop looking for a treatment that will cure you as this may or may not be attainable. Instead, start to think of this disease in the same context as most other diseases i.e. this cancer like most diseases is unlikely to be curable although this may occur. The most important aspect of treatment is to try and control the disease and its associated symptoms so that one can live life to the full.

Do not fear the disease or the Grim Reaper. Remember, all of us have to meet him sometime but we prefer to put off the meeting for as long as possible!

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The immune system

It should be appreciated from the discussion above that the immune system plays the central role in our defence against infections. Our white cells have spent thousands of years evolving to protect us from all different forms of organisms. We are most at risk from pathogens (organisms that cause infection) at the extremes of life.

When we are young, there has been no time to develop immunity and when we are old, the poor white cells can feel like the rest of us and not be as observant compared to when they were in their prime.

It is now apparent that our immune system is also important in keeping an eye open for any developing cancers. Everyday, cells that are developing abnormally will be removed from the tissues by the immune system but occasionally one manages to evade the immune system and then grow into a tumour.

One needs to try and understand how our immune system works and the various effects of different tumours in avoiding the immune defences in order to appreciate the difficulties involved in the prevention and treatment of cancer.

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Advice on cancer treatment

The rationale of our advice and therapies are all based on scientific evidence of immunological principles, metabolic pathways or occasionally observations that a certain therapy has an anti-tumour effect without understanding the scientific principle behind it. All the evidence for suggesting a specific form of therapy will be made available to anyone under our care requesting it.

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