In a week of plenty of bad news, it was heartening to find out that the FDA approved the first-ever vaccine to treat cancer. The treatment is called Provenge, and was developed by a small company named Dendrion for the treatment of advanced prostate cancer.
How it works: by growing the ‘harmless’ part of a tumour cell extracted from an affected person and mixing it with a special cell called a ‘dendritic cell’ in the lab, several antigens are produced which is then injected back into the affected person. This then alerts the person’s immune system to the presence of these foreign antigens, causing it to attack just the cancer cells, leaving alone the normal cells.
Why did I say there’s a lot of hype? Well, most news reports called it an anti-cancer vaccine, giving many the impression that it was a cure or that it could prevent cancer. Nothing can be further than the truth. Firstly, its meant only for prostate cancer (read,men only) and even then its for advanced prostate cancer (read, terminal). All it does is it gives an additional survival time of 4 months.(1)
And the cost? Dendrion announced that it will charge US$93,000 per patient, because, get this, it assumed that people will pay US$23,000 for every extra month of life based on current costs of other cancer drugs. Read more here. At this price, it would be out of reach to many, taking into consideration that insurance companies have not yet confirmed that they would underwrite the costs.
By the way, if we’re talking about anti-cancer vaccines, there are several already on the market – a typical example is Gardasil, used to prevent cancer of the cervix. Provenge is the first therapeutic vaccine – the first vaccine used for treatment, and not prevention.
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If your doctor were to recommend a jab or a pill that will prevent you getting some cancers, would you? Its surprising, but not everyone would take it up!
The truth is that there are quite a few readily available and relatively inexpensive ways which have been proven to prevent some cancers.
Take for instance stomach cancer, the second most common cause of death among cancer-sufferers. It is now known that a cause of stomach cancer is a bug well-known for causing stomach and duodenal ulcers, called Helicobacter pylori (H pylori). Now, researchers have shown that if they were to eliminate this bacteria from those suffering from early stages of this cancer, they were able to effect a cure. Read more of this here. Eliminating H pylori from the stomach involves swallowing a 2-week course of antibiotics.
Primary liver cancer, the fifth most common cancer in the world, is a deadly cancer for which the outlook is bad as, by the time someone has symptoms, the cancer is far-advanced and has spread to other organs. Again, a bug – the hepatitis B virus-has been identified to be the cause in 50% of primary liver cancers aka hepatocellular carcinoma, aka hepatoma. To prevent the virus from entering your body, one needs to immunise oneself by receiving three jabs of the Hepatitis B vaccine.
Latest research on prostate cancer seems to indicate that taking finasteride(Proscar) may prevent this cancer.
There are many other ways that specific cancers can be prevented, some of them anecdotal. Heard of the complementary herbal medicine, the Chinese mushroom, Lingzhi ? I met a cancer survivor last night who swears this herb provided the cure and not the treatment at Sloan-Kettering! As to whether daily consumption of this herb will actually prevents cancer..well,there’s no strong evidence at the moment, for sure. The role of foods too must not be dismissed.
However, my attention was recently drawn to a news report about high-risk women who refused to take a pill a day known to be effective in preventing breast cancer. A woman is considered to be at high risk for breast cancer if she is over 40 and has a mother, sister or daughter with the disease, or has a history of atypical cells on a breast biopsy. A pill, tamoxifen, has been proven to be effective in preventing breast cancer in such women, but there are many who will not take it for fear of the side-effects (which are many but not as serious as actually getting the cancer). See here.
In cases like this, human psychology is to be blamed – people are more concerned about losing a little bit than they are about gaining something more.
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