Ten Tough Truths About Cancer

Science writer George Johnson witnessed his wife's fight with metastatic cancer. The result is The Cancer Chronicles, a new book about the confounding, omnipresent disease. 

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George Johnson has long been a science writer, but his new book, The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery, is the most personal of all, chronicling his own wife's struggle with metastatic uterine cancer. It is a painful book, and an important one. The New York Times called it "as gripping, illuminating and affecting" as any other on the subject, suggesting it is an equal to Siddharta Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize-winning Emperor of All Maladies. Below, ten compelling facts about cancer, culled from Johnson's fine work.

1. Cancer is a normal process with a horribly abnormal twist. Cancer closely mirrors normal cell division — except that in cancer, that division and replication has gone horribly awry. It is, as another writer put it, "a monster of productivity." Johnson writes of a Japanese woman "who had an ovarian cyst with head, torso, limbs, torso, and a cyclopean eye." Considering that the human body contains some 10 trillion cells, the potential for mutiny is constant. Luckily, the human body is full of checks and balances, killing cells that seem to be rebelling (the process is called apoptosis). But that isn't perfect, either.

2. The name of cancer comes from the Greek for crab (karkinos), used by Hippocrates some two and a half thousand years ago. Later, the Roman physician Galen would explain the origins: "as a crab is furnished with claws on both sides of its body, so, in this disease, the veins which extend from the tumor represent with it a figure much like that of a crab."

3. Cancer is ancient, even if it seems an acutely modern disease. It has been found, for example, in the bones of dinosaurs estimated to be 150 million years old. In 1908, scientists discovered cancer in an Egyptian babboon. Additionally, cancers have been found "in an Iron Age man in Switzerland and a fifth-century Visigoth from Spain."

4. Cancer is everywhere, with known or suspected carcinogens present in peanut butter, cauliflower, laser printer cartridges, well-done steak, smoked fish, artificial turf fields, the fire retardant in couches and your morning coffee. As Johnson says, "You could live your life with a calculator."

5. Cancer is a disease of age, in some ways a byproduct of increased longevity. As Johnson notes, 77% of cancers are diagnosed in people aged 55 or older. And the average of diagnosis in the United States is 67. As we live longer, we expose our bodies to more damage — from sunlight, pollutants and, inescapably, time — thus giving cells more opportunities to go awry.

6. Cancer is largely inexplicable in whom it strikes and when. A Japanese man named Tsutomu Yamaguchi was visiting Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped on that city. He survived that cataclysm, then returned home to Nagasaki, surviving that blast as well. He lived until 93, finally dying of stomach cancer. Johnson speculates that "a diet of salted fish" may have killed him.

7. Smoking is really, really bad. Some risks are unavoidable. This one isn't — it accounts for a third of all cancers (and 90% of lung cancers). Smoking and lack of exercise combined with a poor diet, are believed to cause 2/3 of all cancers.

8. While the benefits of drinking have been widely extolled, purely in terms of carcinogenesis, drinking is not good for you, potentially leading to digestive cancers. "Snuffed out by alcohol," Johnson explains, "epithelial cells lining the esopahgus must be replaced — more DNA to be duplicated, more chances for cancer." Drinking also increases the chance for breast cancer by a factor of 15.

9. Long Island was reputed to be a cancer cluster. In the 1990s, people began to notice an increase in breast cancer on Nassau and Suffolk counties. Some believed the Brookhaven National Laboratory, which uses nuclear material, was responsible. Others blamed pollution. However, no compelling causation was found after an extensive study. As Johnson writes, "the likeliest culprit was the relatively affluent suburban lifestyle."

10. The science on cell phones is still unclear. Johnson notes that the World Health Organization's review of 25,000 studies on the subject "uncovered no convincing evidence that microwaves cause cancer." Some have even speculated that regular usage of cell phones leads to a decreased likelihood of brain tumors.

Photo of cigarette packages: AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.