When someone is dying these days, it often seems to be cancer—but that doesn't mean we've lost the war against this dreadful disease, writes George Johnson at the New York Times.
Cancer's resilience is partly statistical: Heart disease has plummeted 68% since 1958 while cancer has dropped only 10%, making cancer nearly our No. 1 cause of death (as per this CDC graph).
But also, "the comparison is unfair," Johnson writes. "Cancer is, by far, the harder problem—a condition deeply ingrained in the nature of evolution and multicellular life." In other words, the cellular mutations that make cancer possible are necessary for evolution.
Cancer cells are following the Darwinian rules—mutating and evolving—only they're spreading a genetic error that is ultimately lethal. Despite this, we've significantly reduced stomach cancer (thanks to better refrigeration and public sanitation) and lung cancer (where anti-smoking campaigns have taken hold).
So give scientists a break—especially considering that cancer becomes more likely as our cells mutate over the years. "A body will come to a point where it has outwitted every peril life has thrown at it," writes Johnson.