Genes direct cells to divide or when not to, and when to die. Cancer occurs when errors in the genes cause them to continue to divide rather than to die, or to leave the place where they're growing and to grow new colonies elsewhere -- metastasis.
Understanding which genes are driving the errors inside the cell has led to the development of more targeted treatments, Garber said.
And yet, cancer remains a wily foe. Over time, cancer cells continue to mutate and learn how to evade treatments, rendering therapy ineffective.
"Cancers are always changing their spots. They're always mutating," Garber said. "That's why even when we have targeted therapies, they don't cure everyone. The assumption is we will need to be even smarter, to learn to give them differently, such as in combination with other treatments, or give them at the very earliest time when cancer is the most curable."
It's for all those reasons that it's crucial to continue funding cancer research, despite budget wars and deficit worries, Garber said.
"We celebrate every success, but many of our successes are small successes," Garber said. "Pancreatic cancer is still a very lethal and serious diagnosis. Most people do not survive five years. Ovarian cancer is one that almost always is found quite late, because the symptoms are very subtle and people don't realize it's there until there's a lot. People also rarely survive brain tumors. Cancer has a bad name for a reason."
Still, she added, "it would be hard not to be optimistic. It's such an exciting time. There is so much that has changed, but there is so much more to do. We wouldn't want to stop now."
The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more on all types of cancer and treatment.
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