Somehow most conversations about cancer go down one of several pathways. There's the overwhelmed "everything causes cancer screw it let's smoke/tan/drink benzene!!!!" And my other personal favorite, the explanation that scientists and doctors have already found a cure for cancer. Often it's something amazingly simple like vinegar, but the government and pharmaceutical companies won't let the common person have it. They're trying to keep us down so that they can make money off of our suffering.

So what's the truth? While there are hundreds of charities dedicated to raising funds for research, patient care, and awareness, cancer still remains an enigma. It strikes both the young and old, men and women, the healthy and the couch potatoes. It is the second leading cause of death in the United States, and that lends it an air of inevitability for some folks. If you are going to get cancer anyway, why bother with trying to stop it? And what's with all of the money that charities keep raising? Cancer has been around forever, and billions of dollars have gone to research. How is even possible that there isn't a cure? 

Cancer is at its base uncontrolled cell proliferation, in other words cells are reproducing when they should not be. The cells in your body divide at very specific times that are tightly controlled. This is why at a certain point in your life you stop growing taller. Other cells divide for your whole life, giving you a head of luscious locks and fresh blood. Division is controlled by your DNA and signaling pathways so that everything works like it should. In addition to controls, your body also has emergency measures just in case things start going haywire. If a cell divides when it's not supposed to, it undergoes a process called programmed cell death, or apoptosis. Most of the time, these systems work. Every single one of us will have cells that divide inappropriately, but they will be eliminated and we'll never even have an inkling that we were taking a step on the path to cancer.

Unfortunately, even really good systems sometimes fail and when that happens, we run into serious problems. In cancer, cells start dividing when they should not, and they do not undergo apoptosis. The cells also start changing in other ways. They may have multiple nuclei instead of one, they may have unusual numbers of chromosomes, they may change size and shape, and often they don't look like the tissue that they stared in. You notice that I say may on all of those. That's because a specific cancer can have any combination of associated cellular changes, but it is not the same for every type.

Cancer can happen for a number of reasons. Genetics, lifestyle, and viruses all play a role. Anything that causes changes to your DNA can cause cancer. DNA is a pretty stable molecule, but it is not impervious to assault. Things like radiation and some chemicals can causes changes that may keep your cells from recognizing abnormal cell growth. Even virus infections can lead to cancer. It's not always clear what triggers cancer, and it's not possible to tell when DNA damage occurs or if it will lead to disease.

That's the really tricky thing about cancer. It's unpredictable, and it is not even one single disease. Brain, lung, skin, and breast cancer are not all the same thing in different places. In fact, there are multiple types of each of those cancers. They have different causes, symptoms, and mechanisms. Some types of breast cancer respond really well to certain drugs while others have very little response. At this time it is not clear whether thick melanoma lesions are simply older or whether they are completely different from the thin ones. This is the story of cancer, we're just starting to understand how it works and the more we learn, the more questions there are. 

Due to the complexities of cancer, treatment is difficult. The most effective treatment is often removal of the entire tumor, although that is not always possible. If the cancer has metastasized, or moved to other organs, treatment gets even more difficult. One of the biggest problems with cancer is that despite the changes the cells undergo, they are still your own human cells. Antibiotics work by targeting properties of bacteria that are not present in human cells. It's much harder to do that with cells that are largely the same as the good cells that make a heart beat. You may have noticed cancer patients who have lost their hair. This is because many cancer drugs target all rapidly dividing cells, and they cannot differentiate good guys from bad guys. 

This all sounds pretty pessimistic, but the truth is that there are thousands of scientists and healthcare providers working to better understand and treat cancer. A diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence and there really are things that you can do to decrease your risk. A lot of them seem pretty common sense, the idea is to prevent damage that may get out of control. Avoid exposure to things that cause DNA damage this includes things like smoking cigarettes and tanning (whether in a tanning bed or in the sun), avoid prolonged exposure to know carcinogens in things like paint and petroleum products. Keep your body healthy and it will return the favor, eat healthy foods and get some exercise. While it is still possible to do all of the right things and still get cancer, you can decrease your risk. It's similar to driving, you cannot prevent all accidents, but you can wear a seatbelt, drive at a reasonable speed, and use your turn signal. 

While there is no cure for cancer, there are effective treatments. At this time, your best chance for surviving is through surgery, radiation, and chemo therapy. These techniques have been demonstrated effective in hundreds of trials and studies. They were developed through careful research by dedicated scientists. Many of whom became interested in cancer after losing a loved one. It is improbable and extraordinarily insulting to these devoted individuals to imply that all of them know that a cure exists but they cover it up for profit. Do to the nature of cancer, it is unlikely that a cure will ever be discovered, but innovative and better treatments are in development. I look forward to seeing what we know in 10 years and I fervently hope that hopeful and terrified patients and families will not be lead astray by useless treatments that will only drain their wallets. 


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Lizzy is a feminist, microbiologist, housewife with a penchant for complicated desserts and activism. She resides in the land of cowboys with a terrifying cat, an eccentric corgi and a blonde.

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