Why are we asking this now?
Discussion of a “cure” for cancer has hit the news as scientists announced that they had found cancer’s “Achilles heel”. Like many other treatments, the new development offered a hint at a full cure for the diseases, and a glimpse at a world without cancer.
But hoping for such a world — and spending the billions of pounds that go on research towards it — might be wrong, according to Dr Richard Smith. Dr Smith — a former editor of the British Medical Journal — caused controversy when he suggested in late 2014 that cancer is the "best death" and that we should "stop wasting billions trying to cure it".
Many of the people who would be stopped from dying of cancer would go on to die of other problems, likely far worse, soon after, he said. And spending on cancer research could perhaps be more effectively used to reduce poverty and tend to the many other problems that afflict humanity.
Why wouldn’t we want to cure cancer?
There is little dispute that working to prevent and treat cancer — and help people live longer, healthier lives — is valuable work. But Dr Swift’s thinking about cancer points out some of the other effects that process has, which also includes a prolonging of life in a way that doesn’t necessarily bring happiness to patients, he says.
Much of the work that has been done already has turned cancer into “more like dying of frailty”, Dr Smith says. “So it goes on and on.
“The period between when you develop your cancer and when you die of it, becomes a very long period during which you gradually deteriorate away.
“Extending the idea of an unhealthy life? Is that progress?”
But what if we could rid the world of cancer entirely? What would a world without cancer look like?
Cancer tends to be a disease of older people. More than three-quarters of people who die from cancer are 65 years or older, and more than half of them are 75 or older.
Lots of the people who die from cancer would probably die from one of a number of other afflictions soon after, Dr Smith said.
The world has made a huge amount of progress towards prolonging human life, some of which has included work on cancer. But that has come with what is called the “compression of morbidity” — people’s lives are lasting longer, but more and more of that extra time is spent in ill health.
Half of people who died between 90 and 95 have dementia. If we stopped people dying from cancer, other such problems await them — and would likely take their life soon after.
What would people then die of?
There are about four main ways to die, says Dr Smith.
Perhaps the most popular is the sudden death. But that is mostly people’s preferred choice for themselves — for others it leaves behind no goodbyes, and potentially plenty of things that need to be sorted out.
In fact, without cancer most people would die through dementia or frailty. But that is not a fate that many would wish for, and is an expensive state to be in.
There is also the possibility of heart failure, or respiratory failure. But that is a messy death, says Dr Smith, and one that it is hard for people to face.
Cancer, on the other hand, usually takes place over a manageable period of time: a period of weeks or months, not of years or seconds.
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/20 'Tiny vampires' existed millions of years ago
Scientists have discovered that microscopic 'vampire' amoebae existed hundreds of millions of years ago, and they may have been some of the first predators on Earth. By examining ancient fossils with an electron microscope, paleobiologist Susannah Porter from UC Santa Barbara discovered tiny holes which may have been drilled by vampiric microbes. The tiny creatures are believed to be the ancestors of modern Vampyrellidae amoebae, and punctured holes in their prey before sucking out the contents of their cells
2/20 Kepler 62f
An Earth-like planet orbiting a star 1,200 light years away could have conditions suitable for life, say scientists. Kepler 62f is about 40 per cent larger than the Earth and may possess surface oceans. It is the outermost of five planets circling a star that is smaller and cooler than the sun discovered by the American space agency Nasa's Kepler space telescope in 2013
3/20 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
4/20 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
5/20 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
6/20 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
7/20 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
8/20 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
9/20 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
10/20 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
11/20 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
12/20 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
13/20 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
14/20 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
15/20 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
16/20 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
17/20 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
18/20 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
19/20 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
20/20 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
“So death from cancer is the best,” wrote Dr Smith, in a blog post that prompted 2,000 comments on the Daily Mail’s website alone. “You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion.”
What else could we do?
The huge amount of resources that are invested in cancer research could instead be used to improve people’s quality of life, Dr Smith says. The only people that seem able to escape some of the effects of the “compression of morbidity” are those who belong to a higher socio-economic class — and we might do better investing so that more people can partake in the benefits.
“The difference in life between the rich and the poor is 20 years; maybe we’d do better concentrating resources on trying to help poorer people.”
We might also spend more money on making the most of the information that is already gained, rather than seeking to get more, he said.
“There’s a huge gap between what we could do if we implemented everything we know, and what we do now,” said Dr Smith.
Ultimately much of the work now might be harming those that benefit from it, he says.
“Undoubtedly there are developments in treating cancer,” says Dr Smith. “But a lot of them are incredibly expensive drugs which prolong life for just a few weeks — and that is on a population level, which means there are many people for whom they don’t prolong life at all.”
Dr Smith refers to studies where people have stopped receiving treatment for cancer and instead been moved to palliative care — those people have often lived for longer than those that are receiving aggressive treatment.
“That’s not surprising — some of these treatments are toxic. So the quality of life can often be very low.”Reuse content