Cancer: A modern scourge or the cost of being a multi-cell organism?

Although I knew intellectually that cancer was not a new disease since it had been described in early medical texts, I always thought that it was more a scourge of recent times.  The tweets, the news reports, the innumerable stories of new cancer treatments promoted on the web, the ongoing recommendations for specific foods, vitamin supplements, and lifestyle recommendations to prevent cancer, and the heart wrenching stories of celebrities telling their personal cancer saga, all suggested that cancer rates are increasing and definitely a modern disease.

It is difficult to make sense out of this maelstrom of pessimistic and optimist news about the war on cancer.   Yet, if one can take a broader perspective, cancer is not the number one killer–that honor belongs to heart disease. And, although breast cancer is terrifying, many more women die of heart disease than breast cancer (Jemal, et al, 2008).

Most likely, cancer has been with us since we evolved from a single cell—it may express the fundamental life force of a cell when it becomes threatened or is no longer subservient and supportive for the maintenance of its community of cells.  It is humbling to realize that cancer transcends our human history. It has even  been found in dinosaur bones. If it was in the bones, then other cancers probably also occurred in the dinosaur’s soft tissue.   It is equally humbling to recognize that although environmental and dietary factors can affect carcinogenesis, in most cases the data is much less clear. So often one study finds a beneficial effect and then a few years later another study reports the opposite finding.  Yes, some behaviors are generally harmful-smoking increases the risk of lung cancer significantly although most smokers do not die of lung cancer. And, most likely the major significant factor in the recent decrease in breast cancer death rate is that women are smoking less and stopped using hormone replacement therapy.

One thing is clear, cancer is part of our human biology and it has occurred since multi-cellular organisms (e.g., morula) evolved to deal with cellular stress (Boaz, 2002). To grasp the biological complexity, the confusion that exists and appreciate how to perceive different perspectives, I strong recommend reading the remarkable book, The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery, by the award winning science writer George Johnson. (Johnson, 2013).

Cancer  a modern scourge or the cost of being a multi-cell organism

References:

Boaz, N.T. (2002). Evolving Health: The origins of illness and how the modern world is making us sick. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Jemal, A., Siegel, R., Ward, E., Hao, Y., Xu, J., Murray, T. and Thun, M. J. (2008), Cancer Statistics, 2008. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 58: 71–96. doi: 10.3322/CA.2007.0010 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.3322/CA.2007.0010/full

Johnson, G. (2013). The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  http://talaya.net/chronicles/



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