March of the Deathless Disease

Cancer is immortal.

I’m not saying this for dramatic effect. Somewhere in a lab, there is a cluster of cancer cells that has survived decades after its original host has died. They will keep dividing. It might be easier for them to do inside a body, but apparently, location is irrelevant.

This isn’t to say that cancer cannot be destroyed. It can. But it can also return, again and again, each time with a new vengeance. But why?

We all want to know because cancer is one of our greatest medical challenges. It is not a foreign disease, an interloper that stomps around our bodies causing havoc. Cancer is us, broken.

You see, each of us receive 23 chromosomes from each parent, for a total of 46. They hold our genetic code. Our DNA. And they copy themselves, over and over and over again as we grow, age and eventually decline into death. You can probably imagine that copying and recopying the same genetic structure can sometimes go awry. If you had to copy a complicated sentence billions of times, your handwriting would suffer, your spacing might change, or you might miss a letter or write the wrong one. This is what happens to chromosomes. We call these copying mistakes “mutations” because they give rise to new genes that express new traits.

However, mutation is not only caused by random copying errors. It can be instigated by outside factors. The factors we are concerned with are carcinogens, or rather, agents that cause oncogenes (genes that take part in cancer growth) to mutate, creating active cancer cells. Some well-known carcinogens are smoking, HPV, and asbestos.

(Yes, smoking does cause cancer. We’ve known this since the fifties. Anyone who thinks differently is in deep denial.)

Anyway, smoking, HPV and asbestos are carcinogenic for different reasons. Smoking infiltrates your lungs and throat, activating certain genes that can set off all types of cancers. HPV is a virus that mutates healthy cells. While asbestos itself does not induce mutation, it lodges in the lungs, causing chronic inflammation, which is what leads to the mutation of oncogenes.

These are two environmental factors that go about cancer-causing in two ways, and a virus. Scientists have been trying to locate carcinogens and their corresponding oncogenes for decades now, and we’re still hundreds of thousands of chemicals behind. What is known, however, is that several mutations have to build up in order to get cancer moving.

Some people are born with mutations, something that is called genetic predisposition. Other people acquire mutations throughout their lives. The mutations stack up in either case, culminating in cancer. The sad fact is, if you live long enough, you will get cancer. Currently, the rate is at 1 in 4 people, and a large part of those numbers have to do with the prevalence of smoking.

Generally, two types of oncogenes are involved in the proliferation of cancer. The first is like the gas pedal on a car. It signals for cells to divide, and when they are done, it quiets and goes back to sleep. Another is the breaks, it tells cells when it’s time to stop dividing. When mutations occur in the “gas pedal” gene and the “brake” gene is eliminated, cancer has no reason to stop. It will divide into infinity, if it can.

That is the break within ourselves that doctors then try to fix, working to eliminate those rogue cells and genes that live to divide. There are now targeted therapies for certain genes that have allowed some cancers to be kept under control. But there is something about cancer that most people don’t realize.

Cancer is smart. It is adaptable, changeable and merciless. It has serious Darwinian tendencies. If you are lucky enough to get a stupid cancer, you will walk away with your life. However, some cancers mutate and re-mutate in order to escape treatment and continue dividing. Our current knowledge is not great enough to beat them. As Siddhartha Mukherjee explains in “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”, we are always finding new treatments for cancer’s new tactics. (Btw, a lot of what I am writing here, I learned from that book)

So what can we do to stop cancer? I’m not exactly sure. Of course, you can get your yearly Pap smear, make sure your dentist checks for oral cancer, stay away from anything that is burnt or burning, and limit your intake of alcohol, but even then, there is no guarantee.

You see, because cancer is us, just wild and uncontrolled, it often feeds off the same nutrients we need, others we just enjoy. Some cancers thrive on folic acid. The stuff found in prenatals, avocados, and many other foods. So does that mean that if you eat lots of avocado, you are feeding that particular cancer? Then there’s alcohol. Certain breast cancers LOVE estrogen. It is their food. When you drink alcohol, your body’s ability to metabolize it slows down, and therefore, there is more estrogen in your body for the cancer to feed on.

But how do you know, before you are diagnosed, if you have the breast cancer that loves estrogen or the one that doesn’t care a lick for it? Or if your particular cancer loves folic acid? The fact is, we don’t know. The research done on diet and cancer is paltry. There are millions of untested chemicals in our personal care and cleaning products that could be carcinogens. The plastic we so love to use is literally crawling with things that can potentially cause our chromosomes to mutate. Even if you follow the antioxidant, smoke-free, natural life style, it doesn’t mean you are safe from cancer. Your genes could mutate anyway. Randomly. And then your cancer could be the wily kind, that changes and adapts to spread far and wide. Sure, it could also be timid and easily destroyed, but in the end, it seems to me all like a lot of luck.

Not eating processed food is most likely a safe bet because who knows what those additives do. But it’s also impossible to know if your cancer is not the kind that cares what you eat. You’re better off eating healthy to keep your ticker strong, as heart disease is still the number one killer in America. Eating to stave off cancer may not make any difference at all because it’s the type of cancer that matters, and you won’t know until you have it, and even then, you might not know how to stop it nutritionally.

Unfortunately, with cancer, there are no easy answers. A sort of gamble we all have to take.

Unless you smoke, then cancer is not a chance, but a guarantee if you keep smoking. It depends on your body, your mutations, and the cancer that you ultimately get.

This may all be depressing, but I look at it as a type of liberation. Take the precautions you can, but don’t worry about what you can’t control. Instead of stressing about the cancer you or someone you love will get, or has, or might get again, enjoy the life you have. Because if cancer has it’s way, it will take over that life. Either through death or treatment.

Cancer’s one clear message is that we are not immortal, and fighting the inevitable will eventually lead to failure.

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