Cancer really is, unfortunately, an inevitability. Looking at cancer from the perspective of genetics, it is sadly unavoidable. If we live long enough we will eventually get cancer. It is important that we continue to fund research and treatment of cancer through supporting the many charitable organisations available such as the Movember Foundation, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada, and the Canadian Cancer Society, just to name a few off the top of my head.
Cancer is the result of accumulated mutations that have ended up creating cells in our bodies that grow uncontrollably. Mutations just happen, there’s no way to avoid having genetic mutations happen in us throughout our lives. Often the word “cure” is used when talking about fighting cancer. There just isn’t ever going to be a full blown cure for cancer because we will never be able to stop natural mutations that are a given by-product of biology. This is why it is so very important for us to continue funding science that studies cancer. We need to continue developing new therapies and treatments. Many cancers still have a high mortality, a way of saying that there is still a lot of deaths due to cancer. Cancers also have a high morbidity. Morbidity is a measure of quality of life and reflects how much it sucks to live with and how much of an impact it has on health. New treatments are needed for both these aspects, we still need new ways to treat and save lives but also to continue to improve the care for individuals suffering with cancer.
In the most basic sense cancer is cells growing and multiplying out of control, they’re out of sync and working selfishly against the rest of the body. Cancerous cells come about from acquired genetic mutations causing a cell to lose its ability to control its growth. They become ravenous using up available nutrients and multiplying non-stop to crowd and hurt neighbouring cells and disrupt normal organ functions. Mutations and changes in our genome happen constantly throughout our lives. Sometimes these mutations don’t do a thing. Most of the time cells use their own machinery available to detect and repair their own mutations. On rare occasions the mutations cause a cell to lose control of regulating itself and begin to grow out of control. Normally our immune system is actually able to detect and eradicate cells that are heading down that road. Based on probability, it is just a matter of time until the conditions occur when cancerous cells aren’t immediately caught by the immune system and start developing as a clump of cancer, called a tumor. This is a process with a specific name called tumorigenesis. Tumors can be benign, this is where the tumor is actually rather slow in growth and is not having any immediate negative effect on the body. Plantar warts are an example of this, though the cause is a viral infection, not an aberrant collection of genetic mutations. Full-blown cancer is the result of tumors that are called malignant. These grow aggressively, divert nutrients, and hurt organ and system functions. This is when it’s a disease and life threatening. Cancers can also undergo metastasis which is when cancerous cells will spread from the original tumor to other parts of the body and establish new tumors.
As I stated above, the root cause of cancer ultimately is just because mutations happen, developing genetic mutations through our lives is just part of biology. And because it can arise from any number of random mutations it is not really a single disease. The mutations will keep on developing as the tumor grows and at an increasing pace contributing to cancer being so difficult to treat. A given tumor will have many different cancerous cells in it with different mutations. This actually makes cancer many, many diseases. Each incidence of cancer is really all its own each time it arises. This underscores even more so that there is a necessity to continue to support and fund care for those with cancer and research new treatments. The sad truth is that cancer is something that will always be around. But with continued work for new therapies and treatments and expanding our capacity to detect and treat cancer we can make the suffering and loss of life less and less into the future.
As a final note on my first post I wanted to mention that I aim to use this site as a way to inform and make science more accessible. In my posts I’ll provide links to open access research articles to provide an idea of what the front line of research really is and a way to get at more of the nitty-gritty details than I write about here. At least for the next month I’m focusing on cancer biology in my posts. With that, here’s a few recent and good review articles summing up a lot of recent work in cancer biology. Review articles are basically summaries of recent science mixed with the author’s opinion/new ideas on a field of research. There’s rarely ever any experiments done for a review article, they just reference other articles where experiments were performed. There’ll be times when I also directly cite primary research articles. These are the articles where new things in science have been found and report on the experiments that were done. Those’ll be really focused posts and I’ll be giving more of a break-down of the actual science. For now, though, I hope these can give a bit of a glimpse into how scientists are actively working to understand and ultimately lessen the harm cancer does to us.
This is a paper that discusses current understanding of what a cancer cell “looks” like on a molecular level and how the immune system identifies them.
This is a very recent paper with an update and comprehensive look at prostate cancer here in Canada
And this is a paper discussing how cancers are a mix of runaway mutations and how to develop better therapies.