Cancer is a fundamental disease of all multicellular animals; from sea squirts, through shellfish, fish, sharks, reptiles and mammals. The one thing that humans and the whole multicellular animal kingdom have in common is the ability to grow and repair themselves through cell division. Most of the time this cell division works as in a tightly controlled fashion, but occasional things go wrong and a mutant cell without the normal control mechanisms is born. The immune system is programmed kill these aberrant cells, but sometimes one escapes immune surveillance and starts to multiply. This is how cancer starts.
Some people are genetically predisposed to cancer, and external and lifestyle factors such as smoking, asbestos, excess alcohol and obesity also increase the risk. However, the primary risk factor for cancer is age. As we age the immune system becomes less effective allowing potential cancer-forming cells to escape detection. Because of advances in cardiac medicine and other forms of health care, life expectancy has increased dramatically in the last 50 years – from 71 in 1960 to 81 in 2019. So, cancer will always be with us and the incidence will continue to increase as the average age of the population increases.
But it’s not all bad news. Research-led improvements in cancer prevention and treatment means that many more people are surviving cancer and for some forms cure rates are more than 90%. But there is still much to do, and Cancer Research Trust NZ is dedicated to funding innovative research across the cancer spectrum.
To find out more, visit cancerresearchtrustnz