Thinking Clearly About Cancer: 5 Important Ideas You Need To Get Right

cancer questions
Cancer: a thousand different parts that comprise the symbol

The oft-talked about “Cure for Cancer” has become the modern equivalent of King Tut’s tomb.  An elusive treasure that promises prosperity and longevity….as soon as we find it.

How close is humanity to its stated goal?

After 4 decades of research and close to a trillion dollars spent on answering the question the results are a mixed bag.  This might seem dour, but the uncertainty surrounding cancer research is in large part due to advances in how the disease is perceived. As the mechanisms of the condition have come into greater clarity scientists, doctors and patients have been able to disaggregate the disease into its constituent parts, each of which has their own nuance.

So what do we really know? 

In a sense, a remarkable amount and not that much.  Reams of research have come in over the years that’ve allowed us to understand the various pathways involved in its genesis and transmission that were a fog many years ago.  And yet it doesn’t seem like we’re any closer to the one-size-fits-all-panacea we dreamed about for 30 years. To the curious layperson, here are some useful foundations for conceptualizing cancer in the right way.

1). It’s Not a Monolithic Disease.

Cancer started out as a general condition but has slowly begun to be understood as an umbrella term that includes hundreds and maybe thousands of micro-conditions.  Much like poverty and world peace, cancer has remained “out there” because it’s mostly a symbolic apparition for a bunch of moving parts that have no other useful organizing principle.  Some forms of cancer are basically treatable and have cures.  Others are still death sentences.

2). Sugar is the Biggest Culprit.

More and more it looks like the excessive presence of sugar in the diet is one of the biggest risk factors in getting the disease.  I’ve written before that glucose is the de-facto fuel for cancer cells, and it’s recently been discovered that as much as 1/3 of cancerous cells have insulin receptors within them, which require more blood sugar to keep them going.  The combination of excess sugar and insulin secretion combined with a high level of tissue inflammation is the equivalent of cellular rocket fuel that precipitates unhealthy cell growth.

3). It’s An Infectious Disease.

Sometimes.  Over the years an alphabet soup of different pathogens have been shown to be the cause of cancer.  The most widely studied is HPV, which causes the majority of cervical cancer in females.  EBV, Hepatitis C, and perhaps HIV have similar effects.

Bacteria and pathogens probably don’t cause cancer directly, but instead their presence helps set the stage for cellular imbalances that result in tumors.  Bacteria often result in localized cellular damage which results in inflammation and a heightened immune response, which results in a higher rate of cellular turnover and free radical production, which foments irregular cell growth.

4). It Frequently Cures Itself.

More and more it looks like what we observe as cancer is actually the last manifestation of the disease. The first 4/5 of its existence is mostly formless, and its presence is usually shrouded by your immune system’s on-going battle with the condition.  And lots of times your body wins.

I think in hindsight one of the most surprising perspectives we’ll have about today’s approach towards cancer is how long it took us to tell it was there.  In hindsight we’ll understand that a large variety of ailments and conditions were actually early stages of cancer which were either cured by the body or cut short by more serious maladies that killed the body.

A good example of this phenomenon is the lack of heart cancer.  Inflamed heart tissue with irregular cell growth probably makes you more susceptible to a stroke or heart attack which causes us to underdiagnose its presence.

5). Most People Compartmentalize Its Causes.

It’s not hard to find some study somewhere that finds a correlation or two between some ingredient, pathogen, or synthetic compound which results in irregular cell growth.  In certain circumstances these results are almost undoubtedly true, but it’s very difficult to generalize the application of these results.  The excessive fixation on individual lifestyle components and their causes probably takes people’s attention away from the more general insights people need to make to create a lifestyle that fights the disease.

One of the more striking findings in scientific research is just how unreliable scientific research is, even if it’s well conducted.  More and more it’s being realized that it’s very difficult to recreate the conditions that allowed experiment results to be true.  People are also biased towards results that are interesting, which skews the perception of results that deviate from the norm.

It’s gotten so bad that even some of the most prestigious journal articles have been humbled because other teams of researchers can’t reproduce the results.

So What Does This Mean?

Compressing this information is both very useful and not at all.  It doesn’t do anything to remove the economic, cultural and genetic constraints that hinder us from living life to its healthiest.  It doesn’t offer any shortcuts that’ll save you time or effort in fighting the disease.  Just the opposite.

But for enemies that don’t have a clearly defined shape it’s important to have accurate perceptions.  Cognitive illusions are a very serious phenomenon, and viewing the issue with the proper lense is the first step to getting on the path to recovery.

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