The Scourge Of Cancer

Brain Cancer Cell

Of course, the statistics are grim.  This year, 564,800 Americans are expected to die of cancer:  that’s more than 1,500 people a day.   It is the #2 national killer, right behind heart disease.  Amazingly, there are 8 million Americans alive today with some history of cancer.[1]  Men have a 1 in 2 risk for developing cancer in their lifetime – for women, it’s 1 in 3.  14% of diagnosed women will die this year from breast cancer – for men, it’s 29% from lung cancer.[2]

As a dual breast cancer survivor, I have a vested interest in the progress being made – or not – in finding a way to halt this scourge.  Over the past two years, I have not only personally had cancer, but have lost four friends:  each to a different form of the killer.  I am so so tired of getting the news that someone else has lost the struggle;  that we will never see them again.  Cancer recognizes no boundaries and has no respect for celebrity:  it can hit anyone, from the great( Ted Kennedy) to the small.  And whether or not you survive is up to a roll of metastasizing dice.  In other words, it’s a crapshoot.

Are there lifestyle changes you can make to increase your odds?  Obviously, stop smoking.  And don’t drink and smoke in excess.  Yes, heavy drinking can lead to cancer of the mouth, throat, liver, voice box, and esophagus. [3]  Try not to become obese (36% of adult Americans are).[4]   Don’t eat crap, especially red meat, preserved meat, and salt.  Don’t expose yourself excessively to the sun, since ultraviolet rays can lead to melanoma.[5]  Avoid intravenous drug use, as hepatitis B and C are major causes of liver cancer.[6]  Stay away from known carcinogens:  asbestos, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and nickel.  Get some goddamn exercise, since physical inactivity is linked to 30% of all colon, endometrial, kidney, and esophageal cancers, as well as 30% of breast cancers in older women.[7]

Of course, cancer treatment itself may cause further cancer, as with radiation.  I had thirty-five sessions, and really not much of a choice.  It might not surprise you that the top 16 countries for cancer are all in the West:  in other words, the US, and Europe.[8]  It is here that we’ve developed the sophistication of a toxic, polluted environment; a culture where everyone sits on their ass, eating Pringles and playing video games; and a capitalist economy utterly unconcerned with preserving health.

But here’s the important question:  are there any bright shining treatments peeking over the horizon?  As a matter, of fact, yes.  Let’s examine the future of chemo.  Right now, these drugs permeate the entire body, and that’s why your hair falls out (to chemo, a fast-growing cell is a fast-growing cell).  This therapy evolved from World War I and the then-legal toxin of mustard gas.  It is on an attack and destroy mission, and if the organism is killed in the process. . .oh well.   The next phase of chemo  may very well be targeted, or personal therapy:  “It is hoped that information about a patient’s proteomic, genetic and metabolic profile could be used to tailor medical care to that individual’s needs.”[9]  From Medicine’s mouth to God’s ears!!

Genetic research may very well point the way to a cure.   There is a new treatment which helps to persuade the immune system to destroy cancer cells.  So far, it’s been shown to shrink or cure human breast, ovary, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate tumors that have been transplanted into mice.[10]

Irving Weissman, one of the researchers, explains: “What we’ve shown is that CD47 isn’t just important on leukemias and lymphomas. It’s on every single human primary tumor that we tested… We showed that even after the tumor has taken hold, the antibody can either cure the tumor or slow its growth and prevent metastasis.”[11]  His group has just been granted $20 million to begin human testing.

A 2010 Cal Tech study has shown that nanoparticles (talk about science fictional!) can adhere to proteins associated with cancer, deliver medication, and turn off these bad proteins.  It’s called RNA interference and has been proved to work on people.[12]  Go, Cal Tech, go!

Perhaps the most amazing potential cure was refined by a 17-year-old high school student who won the national Siemens science contest and its $100,000 prize.  She deserves it.

Her theory is to mix cancer medicine in a polymer that would attach to nanoparticles — which would then attach to cancer cells and show up on an MRI.   Doctors could then see exactly where the tumors are.  Then she thought that if you aimed an infrared light at the tumors to melt the polymer and release the drugs, you could kill cancer cells without harming the healthy ones.  She has already proven her theory on mice.[13]

There’s another drug called DCA which kills cancer cells by disrupting the way they metabolize sugar, causing them to commit suicide.  Yet here, as always, is the problem:  it is a common, cheap drug, and not patentable.  Says Pharmacologist Omudhome Ogbru:  “Profit is the incentive for the risk that the company takes.  Without the promise of a reasonable profit, there is very little incentive for any company to develop new drugs.”[14]  Even though DCA has caused three patients to go into total remission from “incurable” cancers.  Naturally, this was in Canada not the money-mad U.S.

Not to be outdone, Israel is experimenting with a drug originally developed for stroke patients to kill cancerous cells. [15]    The Susan G. Komen Foundation has given tens of millions to promote research into BRCA1 & 2 mutations (the hereditary genes which cause breast cancer).  Since BC spreads to other organs 25% of the time, Komen is also investing in studying metastasies at the genetic level.[16]

So it’s not like Science is standing around playing with its Petri dishes.  All over the world, researchers are trying to beat the Big C  with swords made of molecular steel.  Someday, one of them will succeed.  Wouldn’t it be nice if they took the Dr. Salk approach and refused to issue a patent?  As Salk remarked about his polio vaccine, “Could you patent the sun?”  Here in the U.S., they’ll try.  Unless the discoverer is herself a cancer survivor.

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[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[11] Ibid

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Ladies – Listen To Me: GET A F***ING MAMMOGRAM!!

Last night, I heard a report on NPR which so enraged me that I thought I would go through the windshield.  A new study is apparently questioning the efficacy of women in their 40’s having yearly mammograms (which, BTW, is recommended by The American Cancer Society).  According to the geniuses behind this, only women at risk (i.e., those with dense breasts or a genetic predisposition to breast cancer) need have the test this “early.”  They can sit back and wait for their fifth decade before submitting to this admittedly awkward procedure.

Well, let me tell you a little story:  if I hadn’t had yearly mammograms in my 40’s, I would be dead right now.  Not once, but twice.  That’s D – E – A – D, TWICE.  And not a lump was ever to be seen.  Did I have a history of breast cancer among “a close relative – a mother, sister or daughter.”  NO.  I can go back to my great-grandmothers and tell you that not a one suffered from this malady.  Did I have particularly dense breasts?  I did have a history of fibroid tumors dating from my twenties, but most of them had shrunk in the ensuing decades.  Therefore, I was the person the solicitous doctors would have spared from mammography.  My only hope is that they would come visit me in a comfy corner of Mt. Sinai Cemetery, maybe on Moses Boulevard.

BREAST CANCER #1.  The year was 2007, and I was 48.  I breezed into The Breast Cancer Center in Bellevue, WA, expecting the same old boring result.  Instead, there was a Stage 0 tumor in situ in my right breast.  It was so deep it could not even be detected by the mammogram.  The doctors noticed that something had changed (which saved my life) and it was via a subsequent ultrasound that the cancer was discovered.

There followed:  surgery, and a radiation therapy called Mammosite, which blasts x-rays directly onto the tumor site via catheter.   A mere five days, twice a day, and the catheter was removed.  I returned to my daily life.

BREAST CANCER #2.  The year was 2010.  I was 51.  Just a smidge past my forties, but, having had breast cancer, I underwent  mammograms once a year – and, for at least two years, twice.   Everything was hunky dory.  There was virtually no chance that Stage 0 cancer would return.  But my left breast threw me a curveball:  this time, I had aggressive Stage 2 cancer (completely unrelated to the first), and what was worse, it had gotten into my lymph nodes.  A visible lump?  Nyet.  Again, the mammogram was indeterminate and an ultrasound was required.

This time, even I could see the tumor floating on its black background of normal tissue.  This time, I had the Full Monty of Therapy:  Surgery (on both breasts, since scar tissue had developed on the right); chemotherapy (which put me in the hospital for six days), a year’s worth of Herceptin injections (since I was HER-2 positive); and thirty-five sessions of radiation – the real thing, delivered by a machine the size of a spaceship.  Oh yeah, I went bald.  Oh yeah, I am on the cancer med Femara for the next five years.  But here’s the crucial point:  I AM ALIVE.

Had I listened to the well-meaning doctors behind the current study, I would not be writing this.  I would have left behind a very sad seventeen-year-old, two orphaned dogs, and a bunny.  So I beg you, ladies, literally from the bottom of my heart:  HAVE A FUCKING MAMMOGRAM.  HAVE ONE EVERY YEAR, THROUGHOUT YOUR FORTIES, regardless of your doctor’s advice.   If your insurance won’t pay for it, they are offered FREE or at low-cost through state Medicaid (as are pelvic exams and PAP smears).   Please go to this web site, http://breastcancer.about.com/od/Free-Stuff-Cancer/tp/Find-Free-Mammograms.htm, and find the facility closest to you.  These are not Third World  clinics:  the FDA inspects them annually.

This may be the most important advice you ever receive.  I’m not saying that cancer treatment is a good time, but it does beat the alternative.  Currently, one in eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer.  That figure is expected to rise to one in five.  It’s not the automatic killer it used to be, provided there is early detection.  Hey, I’m minus thirteen lymph nodes, but I can still write this blog!  Do yourself – and the people who love you – a favor.  Hair can grow back (mine is currently shoulder-length, and I started from a baseline of zero).  But life is not renewable (reincarnation aside).

Listen to the American Cancer Society.  Oddly, they know a little something about cancer.  Even if you can’t stay cancer-free, at least be a Survivor.  You get to wear a cool pink shirt at the Susan G. Komen Race For The Cure.  And they even give you a medal.

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