The sun rises and the sun sets. It seems like the sun rotates around the Earth. Cancer cells rise and are killed by surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. It seems like cancer is a disease. But the sun does not rotate around the Earth, and cancer is not a disease. The many kinds of cancer cells are the products of the disease neoplasia that can emerge in our bodies’ organs and tissues.

Strange as it may seem, much of the failure of the war on cancer — and more importantly, much of the potential for finally winning it — has to do with the definition of cancer. If we think of cancer as a complicated array of conditions arising from the dysfunctional bodily process of neoplasia, it makes it easier to organize research and treatment around preventing and stopping that process. The journal Neoplasia does this by encompassing the traditional disciplines of cancer research as well as emerging fields and interdisciplinary investigations. Cancer remains a daunting challenge, but at least we have conceptual clarity now to guide us rather than overwhelming confusion.

To simplify the matter, killing cancer cells is like using insulin to lower the blood sugar levels in diabetes. Both cancer cells and high blood sugar are products of underlying diseases: cancer cells of neoplasia and high blood sugar of deficient insulin production by the islets of Langerhans cells of the pancreas in type 1 or insulin insensitivity in type 2 diabetes.

The major focus of cancer treatment has been on destroying cancer cells … not on preventing or stopping their formation. Tumors are identified, and surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy are used to eliminate cancer cells. In the process, especially with radiation and chemotherapy, normal growing cells are destroyed as well, and the body’s natural defense system — the immune system — is compromised. This model relies upon the fallacy that medical interventions can cure a disease without the help of our bodies’ natural defenses. Most importantly, it focuses on the products of a disease — cancer cells — rather than on the disease  itself … neoplasia.

A more realistic and productive model is based on the fact that our normal body cells are continuously changing and dying. If in that process they do not die normally, they can mutate through neoplasia and become cancer cells. Although proposed in 1957 and subsequent decades, only recently has the focus of cancer research been shifting to why there is a lapse in our bodies’ natural defenses in our immune systems that ordinarily detect and destroy abnormal cells. That lapse permits cancer cells to grow and spread.

So intervention must occur earlier in the process of neoplasia. To do this, the medical community has to break away from the notion that people in an early stage of neoplasia are “healthy” and, therefore, shouldn’t be treated. People are not healthy if they’re on a path toward cancer.

If this seems radical and far-fetched, consider this. We have prevented millions of heart attacks and strokes by using the same strategy. Heart disease does not start with the heart attack; it starts way earlier with dietary factors and insulin that cause arterial plaque (hardening of the arteries). So we treat those. In the same way, a stroke doesn’t start with a blood clot in the brain. It often starts with hypertension. So we treat that with dietary, lifestyle changes and drugs. Cardiovascular disease, of course, is nowhere near as complex as cancer is, but the principle is the same. We can prevent and complement the treatment of cancer with dietary and life style changes as well.

Jack C. Westman is a psychiatrist and president of Wisconsin Cares, Inc.  He is the author of The Cancer Solution: Taking Charge of your Life with Cancer.