Many people wonder why we don’t have a cure for cancer yet. While we have made a lot of progress in research, curing cancer isn’t easy. Why? Cancer isn’t just one disease. It is more than 100 diseases, and each of these 100 types is divided into several sub-types. So we are looking for many cures for many types of cancer. Cancer research is also a slow, step-by-step process. It involves collecting and analyzing information from lab research and studying people with cancer. What looks very promising in the lab doesn’t always work with people. It can often take many years before a new test or treatment is available outside of a clinical trial.
Even so, it’s an exciting time. Cancer research in Canada and around the world continues to move us closer to the day when many cancers will be curable and others will be managed as chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma. Advances in technology have helped us understand more about what causes cancer, how it develops, how to prevent it, how best to treat it and how to improve the quality of life of people living with cancer.
Today, more than 60% of Canadians diagnosed with cancer will survive at least 5 years after their diagnosis. This is a big improvement over the 1940s when the 5-year survival was about 25%. As our knowledge grows, we will make even greater progress against cancer.
Cancer research covers a wide range of activities and aspects of scientific study. These types of cancer research are improving our understanding of the disease.
Basic cancer research
Basic cancer research helps us understand how cancer starts, grows and spreads (metastasizes). It’s all about cells and it takes place in the lab, where researchers focus on understanding the differences between normal, healthy cells and cancer cells.
The cells that are studied can be taken from tumours in people. Cancer cells can be grown in test tubes or other lab equipment, or even in animals, like mice, to see if they develop cancer. When animals are used to study cancer, researchers can also test new possible treatments and begin to understand the side effects related to a new treatment.
The more we learn about cancer cells, the more we can understand why some treatments work and other treatments don’t. Researchers doing basic cancer research look at the unique features of cancer cells, such as the genes that are turned on or off or certain substances found on cancer cells (called tumour markers). Understanding more about these features can help doctors make a diagnosis, predict a prognosis and plan treatment for people with cancer.
Translational research tests what we’ve learned in the lab and takes it to the bedside of patients – and then goes back to the lab to find out more. What we learn in the lab shouldn’t just be theory – we need to try it in practice. It’s important to take what we’ve learned about how cancer starts, grows and spreads and see how this knowledge can benefit people with cancer. And then it’s important to build on what we’ve learned at the bedside of cancer patients and go back to the lab to see what else we can discover about cancer growth.
Getting what we’ve learned in the lab used in the real world of cancer patients often takes a very long time. It takes many lab experiments and tests in humans (called clinical trials) to prove that a certain test or treatment will give more benefit than harm in people with cancer.
Once researchers find a promising idea to test based on results of translational research, they can start testing their ideas in larger groups of people. Clinical research is one of the most important ways we can improve how we treat and manage cancer as well as understand what raises or lowers a person’s risk of developing cancer.
Clinical trials are research studies that test new ways to prevent, find, predict prognosis of or treat cancer. Clinical trials also look at ways to make life better for people with cancer. Canada is an international leader in conducting clinical trials.
Clinical trials allow us to carefully study a promising treatment or a suspected link between cancer and a substance or behaviour. Cancer treatments often seem to work well in lab tests or in small groups of people. But researchers have to show that these treatments are safe and work well in a large group of people before Health Canada will approve them to be given by doctors to people with cancer.
Database and chart review studies
Database and chart review studies look at information from people with cancer in hospital records or a database of information like a cancer registry. Cancer databases store information about particular groups of people with cancer, such as those with a certain type of cancer, so that research can be done in the future. These studies help to find out which people in a particular group are most or least likely to benefit from an available test or treatment and also help researchers understand if treatments are cost-effective.
Population-based research uses databases that keep track of information about a large group of people (such as all people in a province who develop cancer over a certain period of time) to try to find the causes of cancer. Researchers compare risks of specific cancers in different populations of people with cancer according to factors such as age, sex, race or ethnicity, family history of cancer and your place of birth. This helps researchers to get clues about the important causes of a particular type of cancer.
Population-based research also looks at the quality of cancer care and access to cancer care in different communities across the country. This can show us where cancer care needs to be improved the most.
Behavioural research looks at how lifestyle – including what you eat or don’t eat, how physically active you are, where you work and what you do for work and whether you smoke or drink – affects your risk of getting cancer or a previously treated cancer coming back (called a recurrence).
This type of research also looks at what motivates us to have healthy behaviours and why we don’t always choose them. Behavioural research can help us develop strategies to encourage people to make healthier choices such as not smoking, using sun protection, being physically active and not drinking large amounts of alcohol.
Psychosocial research looks at the emotional, or psychological, and social impact that the disease has on people with cancer, their families and their caregivers. It studies the best ways to support these people. Psychosocial researchers also study how to make sure people with cancer, survivors and their families enjoy the best quality of life possible.
Survivorship research looks at how cancer affects people after treatment has ended, throughout their lives. The number of people surviving cancer in Canada continues to grow – how can we support them better? For example, one area of survivorship research studies the late side effects and complications of treatment. Such research looks at the best way to treat or prevent late side effects and may also compare the long-term side effects of new treatments with past treatments. New treatments may cause different long-term problems.
Improving the long-term health of survivors of childhood cancer is a specialty area in this field of research. Survivors of childhood cancer live with the effects of cancer for a long time and they may face challenges that adult survivors don’t have to face. The treatment that saved their life as a child may affect their ability to grow, to learn or to have children in future. It also may put them at risk of a second cancer when they’re adults.
Pain and symptom management research
Pain and symptom management research focuses on understanding the best ways to relieve symptoms and cope with the stress of a serious illness. It aims to improve quality of life for people with cancer and their families. Pain and symptom management research is also called palliative care research.
End-of-life research aims to understand end-of-life issues better and to improve the quality of death for people with cancer and their families.
The basic biological unit of heredity passed from parents to a child. Genes are pieces of DNA and determine a particular characteristic of an individual.
What’s the lifetime risk of getting cancer?
The latest Canadian Cancer Statistics report shows about half of Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.