What is Cancer?
This question came to me when my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with cancer for the third time. It was a routine check in and they found the little spot on her pancreas, it’s less than an inch long, but aggressive enough to be a serious problem. I knew pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest, but I couldn’t tell you why. In fact, I couldn’t really tell you anything about cancer before this happened.
Now, my grandma was lucky enough to be able to have it removed because they caught it so early and she’ll be one of the 15% or so of people that survive pancreatic cancer but my concern is more a ponderance of why does this thing reoccur? Is it possible to keep it away once you have it one time? How do you do that?
Turns out all these questions are pretty much apples and oranges and everyone has a different answer ranging from kharma to diet to T-lymphocyte degradation. It also turns out that regardless of what you believe causes this terrible dis-ease, the “keep it away” is all pretty much the same thing – eat good food, think good thoughts, exercise everyday, and breathe fresh air. It sounds simple enough but in this society it’s not that easy to steer clear of processed foods and pesticides plus get away from air pollution and step away from the computer lest the email faerie comes by with the latest news about gun violence or deforestation statistics.
The latest stats let me know that cancer shows up in 1 out of every 3 people and kills 1 out of every 4 of those people (that basically means 1 out of every 12 people will die from cancer) and that number has absolutely no signs of slowing down. I figure that it behooves me to know more about this thing.
Where does one start when they’re learning? At the beginning of course! So what is it?
Really, what is this deadly thing that everybody’s talking about?
Cancer is essentially a monster that feeds off of healthy tissues and organs in the body until it starves the body of nutrients. It does this on different organs throughout the body until the host dies – which also kills the cancer, but the cancer doesn’t care about that. It’s whole entire goal is devastating the host.
Okay, that’s morbid. True, but morbid. Maybe the better idea is to talk about how cancer happens. It’s just as gruesome, but it’s not as easy to be sarcastic about it (I’ll try though).
The Intelligent Mr. C.
I’ll do you a favor and begin by telling you that cancer is smart. I’m starting here because I basically had to start over again and re-read through all of my notes while keeping this in mind to even begin to understand this animal – which by the way, I’m not claiming to understand. People spend their whole lives researching and using science. I just read stuff and tell you in words that aren’t all jargon-y.
We’ve all heard about the “stages” of cancer. I always imagined that to mean that at each stage the tumor is larger and it takes a bigger surgery or more treatment to get rid of it. While that’s true to an extent, I wasn’t taking cancer’s intelligence into consideration. Yes, intelligence. A tumor that is at stage 5, is still functioning by having cells as at stages 3 and 4, as well as working on making new tumors in different parts of the body. It’s constantly mutating on every level so that it can grow, infiltrate, and take over the world (the world is it’s host). This dis-ease is basically using the American Dream as a business plan – start as a single cell with a unique idea and then grow and grow until it’s too big to fail. #brilliant
Another thing I find interesting enough to note here is that the origin site of the cancer may actually not be the site where the cancer is first recognized. That’s because cancer knows to hide itself, so it will only create enough cells in the origin site to metastasize and send mutated cells to healthy organs to corrupt the cells there. Outsourcing? Cancer outsources.
Also, as it gets larger, it knows that it has to feed itself by doing more than just sucking energy from healthy cells, so it creates it’s own vascular structure to receive oxygen and nutrients directly from the bloodstream. It begins funneling blood through itself because at that point (stage 6) it has reached its goal, is too big to fail and it has to complete its goal of total annihilation.
Further, it is able to do all of these things without alerting the immune system because it has specific molecules that override and utilize the body’s own communication system to deregulate the immune response (and a lot of other types of cellular communication). In other words, cancer pays off the body’s neighborhood watch not to alert the proper authorities while it wreaks havoc on it’s host. Jerk.
How Cancer Forms: The Stages
This is all about genetic mutation, the details of which are too complicated for our purposes here, but it’s relevant because it’s the meat and potatoes of the cancer.
To make it easy, we’ll talk about one cell’s journey through cancer. Let’s name her Bette.
Bette was born from her mother, Betty. When Betty was growing and adding Bette to the human that they live in (let’s just call the human Bo), Betty was beat up by a group of free radicals and Bette’s cellular makeup was a little bit different than Betty’s. That’s alright, but now Bette and all of her divisions and their divisions are different, more unstable, and more vulnerable to free radical damage than the original makeup of Betty. This is stage one of Cancer. There’s no mass, no evil tumor, just a few damaged cells. Bo the human doesn’t have any symptoms and she probably doesn’t know about the free radical gang abusing the healthy Bettys in her body.
In stage two, Bette and her genetic kin have been going along pretty well, mutated but doing their best to continue functioning. One day, just the right trigger comes along and Bette and all of her copies start rapidly mutating. They still aren’t malignant, but they are beginning to form a mass of abnormal cells. This trigger can come from typical hormone function like estrogen, testosterone, stress hormones – really any normal cellular messenger from the body, from something as simple as an increase of exercise that releases arachidonic acid into the bloodstream or literally anything else that can cause inflammation in muscles and tissues in the body like a diet high in processed foods or veggies sprayed with pesticides. At this point, Bo the human is chilling still totally unawares of the chaos forming inside of her. She could easily be eating a hot dog on white bread in the sunshine on a beach next to a oil rig.
Stage three is where things get meaner. Bette and her mass of mutated cells continue to grow, mutate, and now they have decided to become malignant. The tumor is big enough to start zapping the body’s energy and using the energy meant for the internal organs to enhance its growth and to corrupt the cells around it. At this stage, the cancer’s intelligence really starts to matter because it can’t let the body’s natural defenses against tumors and cell mutation figure out that its malignant. It starts using the body’s inter-cellular communication system to send messages that say “we’re all good over here.” Depending on where this mass is, Bo the human could still be asymptomatic or just beginning to notice a few symptoms like unexplained weight loss, tiredness or pain.
Stage four is really scary – notice that it goes pretty quickly from mean to scary. The cancer has turned a whole slew of cells into malignant agents of mutation and grown a tumor that is constantly growing larger – now, it’s time to franchise. Cancer uses the communication system hijack and takes advantage of the systematic energy depletion from the tissues around the tumor to break into the lymph system or the bloodstream, whichever it runs into first. These are the transportation centers around the body so if the cancer gets into the lymph or the bloodstream, it can basically get anywhere it wants to within the body. Bette and her kin got out their wrecking ball and their sledgehammers and they’re breaking walls down. Depending on where the tumor is located, Bo the human is probably having some real symptoms now that the tumor has grown and is actively pulling energy from the body. It’s critically important to catch the cancer now because things are pretty serious.
At stage five, Bette is ready to move. She and her mutated family have broken through to the bloodstream or the lymph system and they are travelling all around the body at their leisure. They can set up shop anywhere they choose and they do. This is where you’ll hear that the cancer has “metastasized.” The cells in stage five will travel over to a new place and begin at stage three (because these cells are already malignant, they skip stages one and two when they set up their new shop) and they go on about multiplying and corrupting the cells in the tissues in their new home. Total homewrecker status. Bo the human isn’t doing too well now. She’s feeling very ill, she hasn’t had any energy in weeks and she has major chronic pain with a whole bunch of other symptoms depending on the locations of the tumors.
At stage six cancer takes on a life of its own, literally. Bette the cell, turned Bette the tumor, is a mother to other tumors around the body now. Those baby tumors are growing and creating their own tumors so there’s nothing left for the OG Bette tumor to do but to grow. After the tumor reaches a certain size, it can’t really steal enough energy from the cells in the body anymore to feed it’s insatiable hunger and continue growing. Instead of staying the same size and carrying on, the tumor goes to work building itself a vessel structure so that it can directly take blood and nutrients into the tumor from the body. As the cancer becomes too big, the body’s energy and defenses are depleted. Bo is getting sick all the time with opportunistic illnesses along with having no energy, chronic pain, very little appetite and a lot of other issues at play. This is the final stage of the cancer, where the dis-ease kills its host and kills itself in the processes.
Some thoughts about cancer
It’s a funny thing, cancer. I can talk about it like a living being because its whole goal is to manifest a life of it’s own but the truth is that it’s anti-life. It’s a parasite in our world that we inadvertently invited in by refusing to take care of ourselves and the world around us in the way that we need to be taken care of. It’s a downright offensive dis-ease, bent on host domination. ugh.
Yance, D., & Valentine, A. (1999). Herbal medicine, healing & cancer. Los Angeles, Calif.: Keats Pub.