“Necessity is the mother of invention”. Many of you probably heard this quote quite often, but I found it really applicable in my situation. Like I already mentioned, my family was faced with a problem and in order to take the best course of action, we needed to gather the necessary information. And my “invention” was the knowledge and willingness to face the music alongside with my dad and the rest of our family.
Know your enemy
Let’s start by simply clarifying what cancer really is. Many of you probably have a much distorted image of what cancer is and how it actually harms your body. The best way to explain is by making it simple.
Apart from just a couple of cell types (mostly neurons and some reproductive cells), your entire body is in the constant process of dying and regeneration. For example, your skin cells have a life span of around 10-30 days. In fact, most of the dust particles found in your home are actually dead skin cells. Pretty weird, right?
Take a quick look at the average time needed for cells to get replaced:
- Red blood cells – 4 months
- Liver hepatocyte cells – 6-12 months
- Lung alveoli cells – 8 days
- Tongue taste buds – 10 days
Right now you might start to wonder what the hell is really going on in your body. The things are really simple. Once an old cell dies, a copy of it gets created. Here is the interesting part: how the hell does the body know what type of cell needs to be created and where? Well, that’s where DNA and genes come in. Inside every one of your cells, there is a blueprint of your entire body. It is a set of instructions that every cell reads when it gets replicated and it determines its function.
So, it is basically a copying job of massive proportions. And in that process lies the key for every type of cancer on the planet. Mistakes in this copying process happen all the time. With millions upon millions of copying processes happening at any given moment, it is bound for some of the cells to come out sort of crooked.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
So here it is, in the simplest way possible: Cancer is a group of cells doing something they are not supposed to be doing.
Let’s give an example by using a type that strikes way too often these days: stomach cancer.
Like we already mentioned, intestinal cells don’t live long, so you can assume how much copying is needed to replace them. Mistakes happen and by “random chance” – this subject will be discussed later – you end up with a couple of thousands of cells that were the result of these copying mistakes. 99.999% of the times, these cells die off quickly as they are not functioning properly and the mistakes get corrected. Either it is the immune system that realizes these cells got crooked, or it is any of the millions of other factors, but the job gets done. In that regards, you can even go to say that each and every person on the planet has cancerous cells in their body, they just don’t get the chance to harm us.
But, every now and then, these cells survive and multiply (like the original cell was supposed to) and they now pass on the wrong information. And in there lies the problem. Normally, your immune system is pretty darn efficient when it comes taking care of threats that impact your well-being. But when it comes to cancer, the immune system has difficulties recognizing that these cells are harmful. And how it could, when it’s your own cells that are at the core of every cancer?
Armed with this basic understanding, you can get the sense of somewhat overly negative stigma that this condition is known for. Most of the time, the word itself is taken for granted and many people actually discuss it without ever completely understanding the underlying facts. You can also make a simple deduction as to why a universal cure for the cancer is yet to be discovered. Since almost every cancer is different and it is highly specific (to the person’s genetic code and all the other factors), there is a very likely chance that a single drug that can treat all types of cancer will never be developed. It is just too much ground to cover and many scientists actually believe (and from my personal experience I have to agree) that a tailored approach to each patient has far greater chances of being successful than a broad spectrum treatment. And there is also a huge difference between benign and malignant tumors and that aspect deserves its separate segment. I’ll cover this in the next chapter. Hopefully, you are now armed with an understanding of the subject and you are ready to understand the causes and effects of cancer.
Until the next time, stay well.
Armed with the knowledge of what cancer really is, I had the general idea where to look for the culprit in the case of my father. He was an active smoker for more than 40 years and, quite naturally, I assumed that smoking is what gave him cancer. But, there is a lot more to it than you would expect and I was surprised by the amount of cancer causing stuff we are surrounded by.
Gene mutations are occurring naturally in the body, but many other external factors contribute to the process. Let me start with an obvious one, the one I thought I was most familiar with.
Let’s get one thing straight: you are surrounded by radiation all the time: Sun’s natural radiation, radio waves (gsm networks, wifi, television), natural element radiation (like potassium 40 isotope), etc.
The thing you have to realize is that there are two types of radiation: ionizing and non-ionizing. I’ll try to explain it as simple as possible.
Radiation is basically a stream of high energy particles radiating from a source. In the case of non-ionising radiation (wifi, gsm, television, etc), these particles go through your body without causing any changes. On the other hand, ionizing radiation particles (radiation from nuclear weaponry, nuclear waste, Roentgen tubes, etc.), sometimes cause changes in your DNA and that causes gene mutations and other problems. And as we know, that creates cancerous growths.
A natural question to ask is: if Roentgen causes cancer, how come it is used all the time? Well, another important factor is the time of the exposure. As it turns out, time is crucial when it comes to radiation. I often wondered how come when I go to X-ray my teeth, I get a Lead bib while my doctor goes behind a huge concrete wall imbued with Lead? Well, X-ray is a strong form of radiation, but if I get exposed to it once a year for a second, it makes no difference to me. But for a doctor who works with it 8 hours a day, the exposure is a lot longer and he needs more protection. The same logic applies to the Sun’s UV rays. Have you ever wondered why doctor tells you to immediately report if you have a strange mole on your skin? A mole is already a mutated growth, but when exposed to UV rays, these mutations can get worse and you can develop skin cancer. For that purpose, if you are planning to sunbathe (prolonged exposure to UV rays) you are advised to use sunblock. Arbitrarily speaking, “weaker” radiation over a longer period of time causes more mutations and negative effects than “stronger” radiation over a couple of seconds. To confirm the accuracy of this statement, let’s jump to another trigger and explain it.
It is a widespread misconception that smoking causes cancer. Let me state something quite inflammatory: smoking does not cause cancer, directly. This last word is the most important one in that sentence. You see, the pure act of smoking doesn’t necessarily mean you are increasing the gene mutation in your body. But what, how, and how often do you smoke definitely affects the mutation rate.
Starting with what, cigarettes are the worse. Not because the quality of tobacco is good or bad, but because of the stuff they treat the tobacco with. Some chemicals have ingredients that increase the gene mutation rate and raise the likelihood of developing cancerous growths. But not only that, the radioactive Polonium and Lead in cigarettes expose your lungs to small amounts of ionizing radiation. Which brings us to how often do you smoke. Like we already mentioned, it is the prolonged exposure to radiation that causes more mutations, and you can see how that correlates to smoking. One cigarette is not harmful, but one every hour most definitely is.
Your body basically uses chemistry processes to function properly. There is a thing called natural acidity of the body. Everything we eat and drink, do or don’t, affects this body state and in terms messes with our body chemistry. For example, carbonated water is acidic because of the CO2 that makes it sparkly. Does that mean that it causes cancer? No. But like we said, it messes with your body chemistry in a minute way. But if you combine all the minute triggers that you take daily, this acidity builds up. When this happens, your body struggles to function properly which again aids in gene mutation. So while this doesn’t directly cause cancer, unhealthy diets can increase (by a small margin) the likelihood of developing one.
Physical activity (or the lack of), obesity, inflammations, viruses can also have similar effects on your body.
There are plenty of other causes, but I only listed these because they have a much distorted public image and many misconceptions are held as science facts.
The hereditary factor
Finally, I want to address the hereditary factor. Sometimes, people are born with a predisposition for developing cancer. When you have a genetic predisposition, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will eventually get cancer. It only means that you are more susceptible to all these factors that increase the chances of developing cancer. That’s why for example, people sometimes (mastectomy as an example) opt to do preventive surgeries to avoid developing cancer.
All of these contribute in a minute way to the chances that you will develop cancer. Coupled with the natural gene mutations, you can understand the importance of knowledge regarding the subject in question. And the reason I am actually sharing this information with you is because I now look differently on the entire matter. Many people, including me a couple months ago, have no idea about this and they are simply misinformed. Hopefully, this will change they way you look at it as well.
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