“Conventional medicine has lost its battle with cancer . But that doesn’t mean the war is over. Let me explain why we may finally be heading in the right direction.
I just returned from TEDMED , an extraordinary gathering of brilliant minds from science, medicine, business and technology–a veritable intellectual orgy. During the conference, there was a theme that emerged: synthesis.
Instead of dividing everything into diseases and labels, emerging science is pointing to a different way of thinking about diseases. The thread that ran through the conference was that disease is a systemic problem and we have to treat the system, not the symptom; the cause, not the disease. This completely redefines the whole notion of disease. The landscape of illness is changing.
At TEDMED I spoke about a new way to define disease, to navigate the landscape of illness. It is called functional medicine , which is a systems-biology approach to personalized medicine that focuses on the underlying causes of disease. That definition of functional medicine is a mouthful. But in a word, it is the medicine of WHY, not WHAT.
Conventional medicine is focused on naming diseases based on geography, body location and specialty, instead of by the cause, mechanism or pathway involved. Doctors say you have a liver, kidney, brain or heart disease. But this approach to naming disease tells you nothing about the cause, and it is quickly becoming obsolete as we understand more about the mysteries of human biology.
Instead of asking what disease you have and what drug should be used to treat it, we must ask WHY the disease has occurred–what are the underlying causes that lead to illness and how do we look under the hood to find out what’s going on. Modern medicine is like trying to diagnose what’s wrong with your car by listening to the noises it makes without ever looking inside to see what’s going on. Functional medicine allows us to look under the hood. It gives us a method for identifying the conditions in which disease arises and shows us how to begin changing those conditions.
This shift toward a more functional, systems-based, environmental approach to treatment is happening in cancer research right now, and this change was one of the main topics explored at TEDMED this year.
Looking at Cancer a New Way: Treatment in the 21st Century
The problem with conventional cancer treatment is simply this: We look at the disease the wrong way. This reality was illustrated over and over again by the leading thinkers in the field of cancer treatment at TEDMED.
For example, Greg Lucier, Chairman of Life Technologies , talked about how thinking about specific cancers is essentially flawed. How we label cancer is no longer synced up with what we know about the origins of cancer or the fact that two people who have cancer with the same name–like breast cancer–can have two completely different diseases which require different treatments. Just because you know the name of your disease, it doesn’t mean you know what’s wrong with you or what to do about it.
Classifying tumors by body site–lung, liver, brain, breast, colon, etc.–misses the underlying causes, mechanisms and pathways involved in a particular cancer. The fact that cancer appears in a given region of the body tells us nothing about why the cancer developed in the first place. What’s more it gives us no information about how it manifested in a given patient. Two people with cancers in different parts of the body may have developed it for same reasons. Similarly, two people with cancers in the same part of the body may have developed it for different reasons. A patient with prostate cancer and one with colon cancer may have more in common with each other than two patients who have colon cancer. Historically we have practiced medicine by geography–where a disease occurs in the body. That doesn’t make scientific sense anymore. Now we have the potential to treat illness by understanding the underlying mechanisms and metabolic pathways.
These and other misconceptions about cancer and cancer treatment are leading to terrifying results. From the perspective of curative and preventive therapy, we have lost the war on cancer. Clinton Leaf explained how fancy statistics manipulate the data to show that cancer deaths are going down, while they are in fact going up. Overall cancer rates or incidence is significantly increasing. Deaths from cancer are also increasing. In 2008, there were 565,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. One in three people will get cancer in their lifetime. While few are aware that solid tumors grow slowly for 30 years before they can be detected, 17 million Americans are walking around with cancer somewhere along the continuum from initiation of a cancer cell to detectable tumor.
In the “war” on cancer, we are fighting a losing battle for one simple reason: We’re focusing on the wrong target. As a physician I was trained to focus on the tumor–to burn, poison or cut it out, and then wait, watch and pray for the cancer to stay at bay. Newer gene-targeted treatments will help to improve chemotherapy and improve survival rates, but they won’t prevent cancer in the first place or even prevent it from coming back once you’ve had it. Hope is not the only way to straddle the scary territory between remission and recurrence. There is a different way of thinking about how to treat the system, not just the cancer that holds promise for a proactive approach to helping both prevent occurrence as well as recurrence…”
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