Virtually everyone will be touched by cancer at some point in their lives, whether through a personal diagnosis or a loved one's struggle with the disease. So when we read magazine articles proclaiming earth-shattering discoveries that will lead to a single, reliable treatment, we want to believe them. In 10 years, the headlines say, scientists will have found a cure for cancer. But is it true?

Not a Cure, But Closer

According to experts, no one can guarantee that a cure will be found within a given time frame. Although cancer is always characterized by the uncontrolled, abnormal growth of cells, it is a complex disease comprising more than 100 types, each of which behaves differently. What's more, the word cure implies a complete, permanent remedy, but currently, even the most effective treatments primarily focus on controlling the disease and preventing recurrence.


At the same time, scientists are continually making steps toward improving cancer care. Large cancer health centers usually have multiple clinical trials underway, and the Food and Drug Administration regularly approves new treatments and uses for existing drugs. As a result, someone diagnosed with cancer today has a better shot at living a long and healthy life. Here, the six biggest cancer breakthroughs scientists have made in recent years.

1. Vaccine:

The first vaccine that prevents a type of cancer was made publicly available in the summer of 2006. The vaccine, Gardasil, protects women against several common strains of HPV, a sexually transmitted virus known to cause cervical cancer. The vaccine became controversial when some state and local governments proposed requirements that all girls receive the shots.

2. Experimental Drug:

Recent research created a widespread buzz about a cheap, safe, effective chemical that kills cancer cells. The hype began when researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada announced that a chemical called dichloroacetate (DCA) would kill lung, breast, and brain cancer cells without harming non-cancerous cells grown in test tubes. Don't get too excited yet, doctors say, because many more tests are needed before DCA is declared a true miracle drug.

3. Stem Cells:

Stem cells and cancer cells share similar behaviors in their ability to repair and replace other cells, and scientists believe stem cells play an important role in cancer research. However, stem cell therapy is controversial because stem cells are obtained from human embryos, which are destroyed in the process. Recently, two teams of scientists found a way to reprogram skin cells so that they behave like stem cells. This breakthrough could quell the ethical debate.

4. Fewer Side Effects:

A breast cancer drug that causes less severe side effects may change the way doctors treat the disease. Women who had their tumors cut out and then were treated with a drug called Taxotere lived longer and had fewer side effects than women who took a different drug, according to a study presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

5. Direct Treatment:

Women with ovarian cancer who had chemotherapy pumped into their abdominal cavities lived 16 months longer than women who received chemo through an IV, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed.

6. Early Detection:

The most effective way to eliminate cancer is not by curing it but by preventing and detecting it sooner, maintains Dr. David Rosenthal, past president of the American Cancer Society. The death rate from cancer has decreased about 8 percent since 1992 because doctors have gotten better at finding and removing masses that may become cancerous tumors, he says.