, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 597-600
Date: 01 Sep 2012

What Do We Know 40 Years After Nixon Declared the ‘War on Cancer’? On the Origin, Prevention and Treatment of Cancer


Evolutionary principles suggested by Darwin and Wallace some 150 years ago can provide insights into the origins of cancer. Moreover, they can form a basis for answering the question implicitly posed when Nixon declared the war on cancer in 1971: Can we actually ‘cure’ cancer? As explained lucidly by Greaves in 2001, necessary keys to evolution and thus for the origin of species, including ours, are changes of genes or mutations; but changes of genes are also necessary links in the causal chains which lead to cancer. In effect, cancer is therefore, according to Greaves, an ‘evolutionary legacy’. Intriguingly, the realization that cancer is a consequence of changes in genes which are conditiones sine qua non for evolution suggests a mutation paradox on an evolutionary scale: in individuals, mutations may have devastating adverse health effects, including cancer. Populations, however, as a whole can be expected to benefit ultimately from changes of genes to better adapt to environmental challenges. On the basis of premises from evolution theory, it remains for us to interweave growing insights into evolutionary principles with realistic objectives for the primary prevention of and, where the latter fails, coexistence with cancer so that what we do for patients can become more of an art rather than a war.