Cancer is a genetic disease. That’s because cancer is caused by errors in our genes (i.e. DNA), which cause cells in our body to grow out of control and form tumours.

The information in our DNA is massive. If written in small font size, it would fill 1 million pages or 200 city phone books. And changing just a few letters in all those books can cause a genetic disease like cancer.

Cancer is a complex genetic disease that only occurs when multiple genes are damaged. By ‘damaged’ we mean the DNA develops errors (mutations) which can scramble the information that normally controls our cells.
 

How do we get cancer-causing errors in our DNA?

Most of these errors are not inherited but result instead from random changes or exposure to environmental factors like UV light, other radiation, or dangerous chemicals, like tobacco smoke or asbestos. Sometimes, people do inherit a damaged copy of a "cancer gene", which results in an increased risk of getting cancer.

  

Cancers can be very difficult to treat.

That’s because they are similar to other cells in our bodies. It’s difficult to find something that will kill cancer cells but not our normal cells.

Also, cancers are constantly evolving. While a few errors in DNA can lead to cancer, tumours eventually develop many thousands of genetic changes. This means that if a treatment doesn’t kill a cancer entirely, the cancer cells left behind can grow back (this is called cancer recurrence), and when the cancer grows back, it may be resistant to the original treatment and another method needs to be tried.
 

Why isn’t there a ‘cure for cancer’ yet?

We can already cure many cancers, especially those that are discovered early enough for complete surgical removal.

Once cancers have spread to other parts of the body, they are harder to treat, and some types of cancer are much more difficult to treat than others. But there are effective treatments for many types of cancer, which can result in a person living a long and healthy life. Nevertheless, we don't have a 'cure for cancer' yet if you define that to mean completely eradicating a cancer with no possibility of it ever returning—and doing this for all possible cancers.

There are more than a hundred different types of cancers, and each individual's cancer is different from every other cancer.

That’s why at Children’s Medical Research Institute, we believe the future of cancer treatment lies in tailoring the treatment plan to the individual cancer – this is called personalised medicine.

Our ProCan® project aims to scan up to 70,000 cancers of all types and create a database of information that will help cancer clinicians accurately diagnose the type of cancer and choose treatments that are most likely to succeed and avoid those that will be ineffective for that individual patient. This type of precision cancer treatment will increase the number of cancers that are cured and help save more lives. Learn more at procan.org.au.

More information:  
What is Cancer? (NCI, US)
The Genetics of Cancer (NIH, US)

  

Linke's Story

The family were living in South Africa when two-year-old Linke was diagnosed with leukaemia. After six months of treatment, doctors told the family there was nothing more they could do.

The family contacted doctors all over the world and found one in Sydney that could help. One month later, Linke was in remission.

“All it took was three weeks on the right treatment. I truly believe research is the reason why Linke is still with us today.” - Linke's mum, Rene

   Watch Linke's Story   

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