How Close Are We To Curing Cancer? Joe Biden's Speech Makes It Sound Like It's Within Our Grasp, But Here's What The Research Says

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 21: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announces that he will not seek the presidency during a statement with U.S. President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden of the White House October 21, 2015 in Washington, DC. Citing the death of his oldest child, Biden said he is closing the exploration process of mounting a campaign for the presidency, (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The question of whether or not the Vice President would be running in the 2016 election has been on the tip of everyone's tongues for ages  — but today, the announcement came that Joe Biden is not running for presidentHis speech announcing his decision not to run was both emotional and heartfelt — and it also prompted some interesting questions about how close we are to curing cancer. Some of the Vice President's remarks are encouraging; they make it sound as though curing cancer is almost within our grasp. As such, it's worth looking at where we currently stand in terms of the research, and whether curing cancer is something we might realistically achieve in the near future.

Touching on his son Beau's death from cancer earlier this year, Vice President Biden observed that his family's mourning process had "[closed] the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president." But, in part because of how cancer has touched his life, he expressed regret about not being able to lead the country through the scientific process of finding its cure — "If I could be anything, I would have wanted to be the president that ended cancer, because it’s possible," he said, with his wife, Jill, and President Obama at his side. 

He continued:

And I believe we need a moon shot in this country to cure cancer. It’s personal. But I know we can do this. The president and I have already been working hard on increasing funding for research and development because there are so many breakthroughs just on the horizon in science and medicine, the things that are just about to happen, and we can make them real, with an absolute national commitment to end cancer as we know it today. And I’m going to spend the next 15 months in this office pushing as hard as I can to accomplish this, because I know there are Democrats and Republicans on the Hill who share our passion — our passion to silence this deadly disease.

Biden is right that the scientific community has "so many breakthroughs just on the horizon" — to the point where a BBC headline from earlier this year asked, "Have we found a cure for cancer?," pointing to studies showing immunotherapy drugs made 60 percent of advanced melanoma skin cancers shrink and doubled the life expectancy of some patients suffering from lung cancer. But right now, these promising medications don't actually cure cancer in most people, and the longterm effect of the treatment is still unknown. Moreover, because every type of cancer is so different — it's more like a category of diseases than a single disease — many treatments right now only work for people with a highly specific type of tumor. This leads many experts to doubt that cancer will ever have a traditional "cure." "There will be a sizable portion of cancers we can't get rid of," said Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, at a talk quoted by Business Insider. "We're not going to eliminate cancer as a disease."

It's not a rosy picture. But Biden can take comfort in one thing: Even as scientists say we're not likely to find a cure for cancer in our lifetimes, they say treatments will get better to the point where some types of cancer will be effectively cured. For other types of cancer, the longevity and well-being of patients is likely to improve as our ability to manage cancer grows. And that's not a bad legacy for the next president to have, either.

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