“Cancer is not a new disease”, said Professor Michelle Garrett, while speaking at a lecture organised by Kent Cancer Trust at Canterbury Christ Church University to an audience of over 100 people recently. She referred to the Edwin Smith Papyrus that was written around 1700 BC that includes descriptions of tumours that were removed by cauterisation with a tool called the”fire drill”! The word “cancer” is credited to the Greek physician Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC).

Today we realise that cancer is primarily a disease of older people with 89% of all cancers being diagnosed in adults aged over 50; of these 36% are in the 75 and over age range. Given the dramatic increase in life expectancy which has risen from 45 years for men and 49 years for women since 1901 to 78.1 years for men and 82.1 years for women in 2010, inevitably the many forms of cancer are more noticeable.

We now know that cancer is caused by faults in the DNA of a cell, leading to division of that cell running out of control. Some of the faults are the result of inherited factors, some the result of natural cell processes with others caused by environmental carcinogens such as tobacco or UV light.

Now that scientists have a clearer idea of the way in which cells are constructed and how cell division is controlled, the development of new drug treatments for cancer are focusing much more on targeted small molecule and biological therapies rather than chemotherapy. Surgery and radiotherapy are often essential components of cancer treatment too. The sooner a cancer can be detected, the greater the chance that early treatment can improve outcomes for patients.

After the lecture, the audience had an opportunity to ask questions and then subsequently to mingle with Kent Cancer Trust  trustees, cancer scientists from both the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University as well as local cancer specialists.

The Annual Kent Cancer Lecture was supported by the Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences and the Faculty of Health and Wellbeing.  Dr Carol Trim from the School of Human and Life Sciences is supported by Kent Cancer Trust in the form of funding towards an MSc students research into the discovery of novel cancer therapies from animal venoms.