Why Does It Seem That Newly-Discovered Cancer Treatments Are Never Put To Use?

If you didn’t quite understand the question posed in the title, let me elaborate a bit. Every now and then, there comes a news story that makes claims about some novel technique or treatment method discovered by researchers that could either end cancer very fast, or at least fight it and ‘bring it down’ much more effectively than existing cancer treatments.

Cancer treatment headlines news papers

We occasionally hear about discoveries of new ways to fight cancer.

For instance, consider this news story. It claims that “scientists have developed a new way to trigger cancer cell death that might actually give us a new treatment option with better results than current methods.” There are hundreds of new items like this, which claim that the newly-developed method to fight cancer could give us the upper hand in mankind’s battle against cancer.

However, the average person, who simply clicks away on their smartphones to catch the “latest news”, and doesn’t really know much about what’s happening in the field of medicine and treatment methods (to fight cancer), might wonder if those new treatments are actually being put to use. If yes, then why don’t they hear about them, as in, why don’t they hear on the news that the new treatment that was discovered in recent months has actually started curing people of cancer?

In order to get to the bottom of this, we need to understand a thing or two about how new treatment methods come about.

Drug development takes time

Do you really think that a new drug or treatment to fight a disease gets market-ready within a matter of weeks after its initial PR announcement?

Translational research (a field whose main goal is to significantly improve the global healthcare system) takes place at a few different levels, including basic, preclinical, Phase I, Phase II, Phase III and Phase IV. At the basic level, the properties of the compound (of the proposed drug) are studied, whereas in Phase IV trials – after the drug is approved by the FDA in Phase III – the drug goes out for testing on a very limited number of patients. This is where the ‘safety’ of the drug is determined. You can read about clinical trials in more detail here.

Needless to say, the entire process costs a lot of money (we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars) and also takes many years. Drug development is inherently a slow process; it can easily take a decade for a new drug to be used actively in the market.

Media coverage

The extensive, sensationalized media coverage of a new treatment for, let’s say, cancer, is based on the initial stages of the aforementioned process. Since it’s based on the expectations of how the treatment is going to perform, it’s often not an accurate representation of how the treatment is actually going to fare.

Diagnosis - Hepatitis C Virus. Medical Report with Composition of Medicaments - Red Pills, Injections and Syringe. Selective Focus.

Media coverage of new drugs can often be misleading.(Photo Credit : Tashatuvango / Shutterstock)

It’s interesting to note that the majority of new drugs and treatments that are sensationalized by the media actually never make it through all the phases of clinical trials.

Cancer evolves

First off, one should understand that calling cancer a ‘disease’ is akin to calling mammals ‘animals’. Cancer is not a disease in itself; rather, it’s a class of illness. It’s more of a classification that describes and includes hundreds of incredibly diverse and dynamic conditions that result in bodily ailments. That’s why it’s impossible to find one universal anti-cancer drug that can simply “get rid” of cancer. Just like you can’t prevent every road accident, similarly you just cannot ‘cure’ cancer with one, universal treatment.

To make matters worse, cancer evolves. Cancerous cells divide insanely fast and introduce errors at the genetic level. If a particular treatment kills 99.99% of all malignant cells, there’s always a chance that the remaining 0.01% cells will recur later, and be even more powerful and nastier than before.

Cancerous cells Detailed 3d illustration of virus, bacteria cells infecting human body. (Ralwel)(s)

Cancer evolves, which makes it difficult to cure. (Photo Credit : Ralwel / Shutterstock)

Cancer treatment progress is incremental

You might expect a new cancer treatment to slash the mortality rate for a certain kind of cancer by more than 50%, but in reality, that doesn’t happen. New cancer treatments don’t do that well in cutting mortality rates, but if it cuts them even by 2-3% (for a common kind of cancer),it would mean that thousands of lives could be saved each year. And that’s a good thing.

The progress of cancer treatment is incremental; new, small advancements stack up one on top of another, and eventually make cancer less and less deadly – and easier to treat.

New treatments are being used

It’s not that no new cancer treatments are in practice today; it’s quite likely that of the many new cancer treatments announced a decade or two ago, some are actually being used today. However, it’s very unlikely for you to know about them unless you are an oncologist (a doctor who treats cancer) or are directly involved in the treatment process one way or another (e.g., a patient, or the relative of a patient).

Cancer treatment Lung cancer screening

New cancer drugs and treatments are constantly being used to treat patients. (Photo Credit : Health.mil)

The fact that survival rates for nearly all kinds of cancer have gone way up in recent decades speaks volumes about how new cancer treatments are continuously being used to fight the ever-raging battle against this terrible disease.


  1. University of Southern California
  2. National Cancer Institute: Comprehensive Cancer Information
  3. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) (Link 1)
  4. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) (Link 2)
  5. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) (Link 2)
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About the Author:

Ashish is a Science graduate (Bachelor of Science) from Punjabi University (India). He spends a lot of time watching movies, and an awful lot more time discussing them. He likes Harry Potter and the Avengers, and obsesses over how thoroughly Science dictates every aspect of life… in this universe, at least.

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