(This is one of several posts I wrote in the last few weeks, but never published, for a variety of reasons.)
In an ideal world (or, it could be said, a well-designed one) there'd be no cancer. Failing that, we'd have perfect treatment: one that destroyed every bit of cancer with no damage at all to normal cells and organs. That is at least imaginable at some point in the future. Even the not-too-impossibly-distant future. Meanwhile, we're stuck with imperfect treatments and we lack the ability accurately to determine who needs how much; who will get along just fine without extensive treatment (and, for that matter, who will succumb even with maximal therapy.) Recently there was news about some progress on that front.
As a surgeon who dealt extensively with breast cancer, I can say one of the most frustrating categories has been the entity known as DCIS, or "ductal-carcinoma-in-situ." It refers to the earliest possible form of breast cancer, wherein the abnormal cells are confined to the inside of the milk-ducts; as such, because it hasn't invaded across any blood or lymph vessels, it presents no danger at all, as long as it stays in that stage. A very rare diagnosis only a few decades ago, it's become increasingly discovered as mammography is more widely done and is of better and better quality. And it's become a therapeutic dilemma: how much treatment -- and what sort -- is necessary for this entity, not dangerous in itself but which has the potential to become so? As DCIS has been more and more frequently dealt with, it's become apparent that not all forms are of equal potential: some women who have it will never develop invasive cancer; others will. And whereas it's still not universally agreed what treatments are indicated for which types of DCIS in what sort of women, it looks like there's progress toward figuring out which women need treatment, and which don't. That's a good thing.
At a national meeting in San Antonio, a recently published paper was reported (by researchers at UCSF, where I learned to be a surgeon) showing that molecular markers have been discovered which can be used to predict when a given woman with DCIS will go on to develop invasive cancer, and which won't. As is the case with early results, confirmation is needed and the testing is not yet widely available. Still, it strikes me as a really significant finding -- one which will lead to much more precise decision-making, conferring confidence on both sides of the equation. Women who need treatment will really need it, and those that don't can safely be excluded. I hope it turns out to be the case; and I wish I'd had such testing available when I saw all those women, all those years.