'Is the glass half empty or half full?' As ever, it all depends on how you look at it. After decades of cancer research, today progress at every level - prevention, detection and treatment - means that nearly one in two cancer patients is still alive five years after the initial diagnosis. 'For many pathological forms, cancer should no longer be seen as an inevitably fatal disease but as a chronic and potentially reversible one,' stresses Shahid Baig, director of European research programmes.
Yet the fact remains that oncologists are fighting a resilient foe which continues to take its toll: every year nearly 4 million new cases are diagnosed in Europe, and with 750 000 deaths it is the second cause of mortality among the EU population. Although this high mortality rate is partly linked to the ageing population, one in three Europeans is hit by cancer before the age of 75.
The main reason cancer is able to put up such resistance to researchers is that it is an extraordinarily complex disease. Behind its general mechanism (the uncontrolled division of a group of cells) are some very major differences. There are over 200 types of cancer, all with their own metabolic particularities about which we sometimes understand very little. For example, with testicular cancer the recovery rate is over 90%, while others can be more lethal (cancers of the lung, pancreas, ovaries, etc.).
The fight against cancer therefore requires a multi-pronged approach. Scientists are interested in every aspect of this family of diseases: its fundamental mechanisms, the molecules able to influence it at various stages, the increased effectiveness of surgery, the effects of radiation and hormone treatment, etc.