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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

Misconceptions about cancer

While it’s the second leading cause of death in the United States, cancer garners more attention than any other disease. This level of awareness is great for funding research, but sometimes the conversations can be misguided. Here I’ll touch on a few common misconceptions and explain my thoughts based on the latest research.


Misconception 1: Cancer is one disease with a few different subtypes


In some regards, it’s bizarre that the term “cancer” even exists. The term encompasses hundreds of different diseases that tend to have a few features in common. These features are referred to as the “hallmarks” of cancer (Figure 1), and the list of them is constantly being modified. In reality, every cancer is unique — both genetically and in terms of the strategies it employs to continue spreading. This is why it’s inaccurate to think about cancer as one disease, and it also explains why the treatment of cancer is so complicated.


Figure 1: The hallmarks of cancer, and the treatments utilized to push back against each (Hanahan and Weinberg, 2011).


Misconception 2: We’ll soon find a cure to cancer


There seems to be a perception that one day, a scientist somewhere will have a breakthrough and cancer will become a thing of the past. As much as I wish this were true, it’s simply not possible. Referring back to the first misconception, there is too much variety for a single treatment to be effective in all cases. There can be unifying factors (the hallmarks), but normal cells can have these same characteristics. Take the hallmark of rapid proliferation for example. Killing all proliferative cells may help with the cancer, but it will also have devastating effects on normally proliferating immune cells, epithelial cells, and more. This is why current treatments like chemotherapy have such harsh side effects.


Additionally, cancer acts more like a constant tug-of-war opponent than a disease that can be cured once and for all. If not caught very early, it’s almost impossible to rid a patient of every single cancerous cell. Some of the best treatments available unleash the power of the immune system to kill cancer cells, but even this is a difficult task. The immune system is designed to distinguish “self” from “other” (bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc.), but cancers are fundamentally our own cells. It’s tough to define exactly when our cells cross the line and become cancerous, which leads us to our third misconception.


Misconception 3: Cancer arises suddenly and randomly


It’s easy to understand why this misconception exists, because this is the way people tend to experience cancer. Someone can be entirely healthy one moment and then diagnosed with life-threatening cancer the next. The seemingly sudden appearance of cancer hides the truth, which is that it is often a decades-long process. Studies of radiation exposure incidents like Chernobyl have shown that cancer risk remains elevated for over 30 years in exposed populations. This is because cancer is the result of not a single mutation, but multiple genetic changes and an overall environment that allows the tumor to grow.


Hopefully, this comes across as encouraging. It means that we are not helpless in our quest to avoid the “Emperor of All Maladies.” To some extent, mutations in our DNA are random and inevitable. We can greatly reduce the occurrence of these mutations, however, by avoiding carcinogens — things like tobacco, asbestos, and acrylamide. We also have control over the environment an emerging cancer faces. For example, recall that high blood sugar leads to high insulin. Insulin is a hormone that promotes cellular growth and proliferation, making it act like fuel for a developing tumor. Chronic inflammation is similarly cancer-friendly. By avoiding these things, you’re making it a lot more difficult for cancer cells to proliferate. We’ll go into more depth on “anti-cancer” strategies in future posts, but it’s essential for everyone to know that they have the ability to shrink their cancer risk.


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