Cancer Among Us
Magazines, newspapers, and the Internet are full of miracle cures from bee
stings, special herbs, and crystals to scientific sounding electromagnetic machines
that implode cancers cells. It would certainly be nice if that were the case,
if these convenient and simple devices could free us from one of modern societies
worst enemies. We must remember though that simply because we wish something
to be so, does not make it so. How wonderful would our world be if these non-intrusive
practices could really free us from the ravages of disease, especially one as
common and debilitating as cancer? If only we were that lucky, medical science
is often a difficult and dangerous undertaking. Medical training requires years
and years of study, a fact directly representative of the complexities of human
physiology, with numerous fields and sub fields. The human endeavor of science
is stumbling through the complex maze of diseases, making small incremental
advances one ailment at a time, and medical treatment is often painful and bloody,
but it works. The outlook is positive and every year people diagnosed with cancer
live longer and better lives. Getting diagnosed with leukemia in forty years
ago was practically a death sentence, as the cure rate was around 4 percent.
Today the cure rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common
form of pediatric cancer, is 80 percent. More people are living both longer
and with a higher quality of life thanks to modern medical treatments.
The reality of the situation is that Cancer, while wrapped in a neat simple name that everyone immediately recognizes, is an immensely complex and varied disease. Cancer cells, unlike most other forms of 'disease' and 'infection' are actually made up of our own cells, they may not be easily identifiable foreign entities drifting through the bloodstream that policing white blood cells can devour. There are as many kind of cancer as there are types of cells in our bodies. Cancerous cells are really normal cells that have their reproduction regulating mechanisms altered. Because of this, as long as the resources are available, they copy themselves over and over again. Normal cells will often wait a significant length of time before copying themselves, and then they generally only copy themselves a certain number of times. Cancer cells replicate as quickly as possible, and as often as possible. They lose their specialization and just become a mass of undifferentiated cells, also known as a tumor.
The instructions for running the complex internal machinery in a cell come from its DNA, and changes to the DNA cause changes to the functioning of the internal machinery. Various things, like radiation, chemicals, cellular stress, and physical damage, among others, can make these changes. A staggering 50% of cancerous cells contain a mutation in one particular gene, labeled p53 (a gene whose removal would also reduce the risk of cancer by about 50%). But for a cell to become cancerous, for that internal machinery to change to allow the cell to freely replicate and run amuck, at least five mutations need to occur. The specifics of the five mutations are not important, and there are more than five specific mutations that can occur to make a cell cancerous, but at least five of them must occur for the cell to become cancerous. If none of the cells in your body have any of these mutations, then any particular cell needs to acquire all five mutations to become cancerous. You can, and probably do, have different cells which in total have all five of the necessary mutations, but no one single cell contains all five mutations, and your own defense systems sometimes finds and kills these rogue cells prior to major damage being done.
If you are unfortunate enough to have had one of the gamete cells (the egg or the sperm) from your parents have one of these mutations, then every cell in your body will automatically have 1 of these mutations. This makes you significantly more likely to develop cancer. If you were even more unfortunate and were born with four of these mutations in each cell, then it only requires that one cell develop that fifth mutation to have a cancerous cell form. This is why some cases of cancer occur in people so young, even in newly born children. It is conceivable that modern gene therapy, often attacked by worried activists, may be able to detect and delete these mutations in your children before they are even born. Such detection and manipulation would the very least save them from years of painful treatments, at the most it may save their lives.
Whether or not you develop a cancerous cell is dependant on your interactions with the world around you and how many of these mutations you already have throughout your body. Different things can cause mutations in cells, and can lead to those latter mutations that cause a cancerous cell to form. Smoking, for instance, introduces carcinogens and irritants continuously into the lungs, disrupting the cellular replication process and causing mutations. Of course, that mutation has to occur in one of the correct genes, and all of these mutations have to occur for a particular cell to be cancerous. This is why things that cause cancer are always referred to as 'increasing your risk' of cancer, because you may be lucky enough to have those mutations occur in other parts of your genome, and not in the cancer conducive sections.
Certain molecules affect particular parts of the genome more so than other molecules, and may be more likely to cause a particular mutation. Some of these molecules incidentally target the genes needed for a cancerous cell to form, making some chemicals and irritants especially carcinogenic. There is also a certain rate of damage that your body can continually combat, as your body has the ability to catch and repair errors when making new cells. This is why background radiation levels are acceptable as the body can generally repair the damage as fast it is made. Unfortunately, your body does not catch them all and some errors can slip through. If an error is introduced into a cell, and there error-checking mechanisms miss it, it propagates to all its child cells, and is forever present in your body. If that error is in a cancer causing part of the genome, all of those child cells are now more likely to develop cancer. As you get older, more and more cells are child cells of other cells that contained cancerous mutations. This is why as we get older it becomes inevitable to develop some type of cancer, somewhere. Since we are living longer lives this would necessarily mean that cancer rates should increase, especially as we get better at treating other things, like heart disease, that used to kill many of us before we reached the age to where many of the deleterious mutations have built up.
Among the multitude of environmental factors that are conducive to cancer forming, diet is implicated as the single most influential one in societies that live long enough to have to worry about cancer. High calorie high fat diets are the single largest contributor to the onset of cancer throughout the population. How likely you are to develop cancer is directly influenced by how many cancer causing mutations you inherited in every cell in your body, and how much time you spend doing things that are mutation causing, like sun bathing, eating a poor diet, being near ionizing radiation sources, or coming into contact with truly harmful chemicals. You can never completely avoid cancer causing environmental factors, even the process of oxidation, which is the source of our energy for living things, causes damage to cells. Living is, in fact, carcinogenic, and 100 percent fatal. But the rates and the likely hoods of these things happening can be altered significantly by ones behavior. For instance, eating highly nutritious low calorie diets will significantly reduce the likelihood of one developing cancer, and there is even convincing evidence that such a diet will extend the maximum human life span beyond 120 years, the only scientifically proven mechanism to have such an effect. Staying out of tanning beds and not smoking and drinking only moderately are other good bets for staving off cancer.
Cancer, despite it sounding like an easily tangible, identifiable, and fightable thing, is a dangerously complex version of our very own cells. It is extremely difficult to target chemically without targeting our own cells, difficult to physical remove without removing our own healthy cells, and difficult to attack without attacking our own healthy cells. There are a few key chemical differences in cancer cells though, unfortunately they are rare and subtle, and will take time and research to find. Additionally, these key differences may very well be different for every kind of cancer. But we are trying, and we are making progress.
A friend of mine once told me that the feeling that there is a conspiracy to hide a cure for cancer from the populous is a reasonable thing to believe. I disagree; I find it hard to believe that such a conspiracy could take place for multitude of reasons. When realizing that each and everyone of us probably knows someone who has died from cancer, it's hard to imagine that people actively engaged in cancer research could willingly hide 'cures' when they have probably had a close family member or loved one die from cancer. Indeed, the very same people who would likely be involved in such a conspiracy will probably get cancer someday. Pharmaceutical companies often have hundreds of people in their oncology departments, devoted to the methodical study and investigation of cancer. Yet, Al Gore in his acceptance speech at last year's Democratic National Convention reflecting public sentiment listed "Big Drug Companies" along with "Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and Big Polluters" as enemies of the American people, lumping organizations working to find a cure for cancer, among many other ailments, with ones who sell products that cause cancer. Considering that Pharmaceutical companies are trans-national, it is hard to imagine that these hundreds of people involved in pharmaceutical companies oncology departments are all actively engaged in this conspiracy to cover up a cure for cancer. Another significant contributor to the fight against cancer is the research that goes on in the Universities and colleges. In the US, the NIH, or the National Institute for Health, contributes about $3.5 billion dollars per year to cancer research, and this is just in the United States. Where does that money go? Much of it goes to the thousands of hours spent laboriously analyzing samples and test mixtures, weeding through the billions and billions of molecular compounds in the world looking for one that has a key to help fight cancer. Still some of it goes toward developing designer molecules from the ground up to attack only cancerous cells, based on those miniscule chemical differences of cancerous cells. Other funds are looking for ways to trick neighboring cells into starving cancerous ones.
Billions and billions of dollars are spent on cancer research every year; indeed some people cite this as evidence for a conspiracy. But might it just be possible that we have yet to find a cure because cancer is so complex, yet so similar to our healthy cells? And since US President Richard Nixon declared a 'War On Cancer' only in 1971, we haven't even really been trying that long. While medical science is a painful and bloody proposition, it's the best we've got and we should give it a chance instead of condemning it for not giving us instant gratification, especially when the real world shows us that every year people who are diagnosed with cancer live longer and better lives.
There will probably never be a 'silver bullet' for cancer because it is so complex yet so similar to our healthy cells. Advances in molecular biotechnology and nanotechnology have a good chance at making significant strides against cancer, but an absolute cure all is not a safe bet. Most likely cancer will become a treatable ailment much like diabetes is today, as long as it is monitored and treated, one will remain healthy and alive.