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London 2012 brought a raft of exemplary displays of human endeavours to our TV screens. Elite athletes did their stuff with stunning aplomb. It all made for impressive viewing. Let despite this showcase of human accomplishments, laudable as no doubt they are, we shouldn’t forget our utter vulnerability in the face of serious illness.

Let me relate the following anecdote.

One of my dear friends died recently. I won’t say passed away because that’s a euphemism. Angela hated. Her tumour unexpectedly returned less than a year after she was given the all clear. It still doesn’t seem right and I can’t help wondering why a cure to cancer is proving so darn elusive.

We had celebrated Angela’s all clear in style. I remember her ebullience and unbridled optimism that night at the Italian restaurant. She had intended returning to university, and travelling to India was on her wish list. Things were suddenly looking up.

But it all turned out to be a false dawn. Her neurosurgeon bluntly told her the operation had only a slight chance of success and she risked incurring significant brain damage. So Angela chose not to have any further surgery. And her desire to spend her final weeks of her life at home with her partner was duly honoured.

She died just days before her 28th birthday. Chemotherapy had just delayed her demise, and complementary therapies proved to be of little use. All of which begs the question; why is it that the best medicine has to offer is often so inadequate in the fight against cancer?

After all, every year, cancer continues to kill millions of people. And there is no sign of a cure on the proverbial horizon.The harsh reality is that right now oncology wards and hospices all over the world are filled with men, women and children whose prognoses are bleak. But amidst all the eloquent heartfelt eulogies and grieving, something is being left unsaid; which of course is our utter vulnerability in the face of such a deadly illness.

According to the Cancer Council of Australia, of those diagnosed with cancer, 40% can expect to die from the illness within five years – a sobering statistic in anyone’s language. The Cancer Council’s website is loaded with useful stuff about how to manage cancer – as best you can. Predisposing factors are outlined and there are helpful suggestions on what we can do to reduce our risk of developing cancer. But of course there are no updates on any looming cures. Simply because there aren’t any.

Our knowledge of the causes of cancer remains pitiful, even derisory. It’s believed that for some unknown reason, cells multiply and spiral out of control, forming tumours and destroying healthy cells in the process. But why this occurs in some people and not others remains unclear. Consuming alcohol, smoking tobacco, leading a sedentary lifestyle and obesity are all contributing factors – but, and here’s the catch – not always.

Noteworthy people like Steve Jobs, Christopher Hitchens and Jim Stynes to name just a few, have succumbed to various forms of cancer in the past year. And most recently, Donna Summer, allegedly, is yet another high profile person to succumb to the illness. For Jobs, it was pancreatic cancer. For Hitchens,it was oesophageal cancer and the late great Jim, metastasis melanoma. News of their deaths was greeted with dismay and surprise. Suggesting perhaps that we still have difficulty accepting that cancer often cannot be overcome with the best medicine has to offer.

Despite its best efforts, medicine simply still doesn’t have any answers to some age old diseases. Granted, some advances in medicine have been nothing short of miraculous, even breathtaking. The success of neonatal medicine is astounding. New born babies as young as 24 weeks can now survive in many developed countries. Once upon a time it was common for women to die in childbirth. And since the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, antibiotics have saved millions of lives. Appendicitis used to mean certain death until the advent of modern surgery.

But we are no closer to even identifying the causes of cancer, much less devising an antidote. We need to regard with scepticism, the latest press release from research foundations and pharmaceutical companies, suggesting imminent breakthroughs. And it’s not just cancer that continues to baffle medical scientists. In 2012,many people are still succumbing to diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. Schizophrenia too which afflicts 1% of the population is defying any attempts to uncover its cause or causes.

For as long as the causes of cancer continue to elude medical science, many of us will remain at its mercy. And amidst our rapidly changing world, one constant hasn’t altered, which of course is the fragility of life.