Thursday, June 18, 2015

Predator Within

A very brief intro on cancer

In many ‘tragic’ movies of yesteryears, one of the plot devices used to kill off the wailing heroine (or a stoic hero) was to impose some disease on her/him. In the 70s, it was mostly T.B. In the 80s and thereafter, we progressed to cancer. Often, blood cancer (mostly announced by the bespectacled doctor to a glycerine-eyed hero as ‘bledd cancer’).

Growing up, at least my generation heard of cancer only in the movies. I do remember a little girl when I was in 1st or 2nd standard. She was a frail little thing, and she missed school a lot. After an elongated absence, she came to school one day, her shaved head covered by a scarf, and she’d gotten frailer, her eyes now filled her face. It was her birthday and she’d come to distribute chocolates to the class. She was accompanied by her parents, and all the teachers came to our classroom to sing to her. After she left, some of the teachers went away to the staffroom crying. Soon after her birthday, the school declared a holiday because the little girl “was now playing with angels”. Most of us never understood what we’d witnessed. It was not an era where information was free-flowing. But by and large, cancer was unheard of.

But now, cancer is so widespread. Almost everyone knows someone who is suffering, or who has been snatched away by this disease. Cure for cancer has become a holy grail quest. Perhaps this is a moment I should take my hat off to one of my schoolmates, a brilliant PhD, whose research is directly linked to this area – cancer cell biology. People like me can only stand outside the arena and cheer on the good work of so many such researchers, scientists and doctors.  My contribution is my support to a charity called Cancer Research – by participating in a 5k charity run. The funds I raise are pittance – but nothing is insignificant. The funds allotted by governments will never be enough, and we never know who will make a breakthrough – maybe a group of researchers working on grants funded by charity trusts? Who knows?

But my reasons are not all that altruistic. For one, there is the 5k that keeps me motivated to get moving. Then of course, there is that need to be a part of something bigger – even if it is in the remotest way – something that is removed from one’s own world of needs and desires.

My responsibility, I think, does not end by shuffling feet at a 5k and asking friends to sponsor me. I also think it is important to understand the disease, and spread awareness. To this extent, I hope this blog helps a little bit.

What exactly is cancer?

To understand cancer, we have to first go back to our school biology – right down to the very basic component of our body – the cell. A quick peek into your kid’s biology school book will give you a refresher on the human cell. For the purpose of this blog – imagine the cell as the teeniest drop – most cells have a boundary ‘layer’ called the cell membrane. The membrane encloses a gelatinous substance called cytoplasm. Amongst other teeny structures like the endoplasmic reticulum, mitrochondria etc, the most important resident of every cell is the nucleus. The nucleus houses the chromosomes; now the chromosomes, as we all know are made of DNA molecules that carry genetic information. Groups of cells with similar function and structure form a tissue and work together to perform a specific job. An example of a tissue could be muscle tissue. Next in the hierarchy, groups of tissues get together to form an organ; in turn each organ performs a specific job. Heart, liver, lung etc are all organs.

Now although the human body stops ‘growing’ once we reach adulthood, internally, there is constant birth and death at a cellular level. One of the important cell behaviours is the ability of a cell to divide and produce more cells. This is known as cell division or mitosis. A parent cell perfectly divides or splits itself into two daughter cells. That is, each of these daughter cells has exactly the same structure as the parent cell, including the DNA molecules. Each of these daughter cells will go on and split into two other cells and so on, at predetermined times. All this is controlled by the DNA in the cell nucleus - in other words, the cells are instructed by a genetic code as to when they should split. So in a healthy human body, the cell division ensures that dead cells are replaced by healthy ones in a very systematic, proportionate way.

Sometimes, the cell division goes out of control (I’ll not go into the technical details of mutation). The cells no longer listen to the genetic instruction. They divide aggressively and soon reach a critical mass; in lay man’s terms, they are now deemed as a ‘growth’ or a ‘tumour’.  

A benign tumour is one which is just a harmless growth – it could be a wart on your hand, or a clump of mass on your intestine. These are localised growths, and they don’t invade other parts of your body. They can be removed safely by a surgical procedure.
But the when the cells start invading other parts of your body, they are termed as malignant – this is cancer. These cancerous cells do not exhibit normal cell behaviour, and in time, they will outnumber ‘normal’ cells. In other words, the organs which they are a part of begin to malfunction.

Causes of cancer

There are more than 100 different types of cancer, and the causes can range from genetics to environment to lifestyle. However, inherited ‘faulty’ gene that can cause cancer is quite rare. For example, breast cancer in men, or cancer of the kidneys, or women with cancer in both breasts and ovaries – these rare conditions will probably have a hereditary link. That goes to say that a majority of cancers as we know today – breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer etc – can all be linked to lifestyle, diet and health, and hazardous environmental exposures.

We all know that tobacco has a staggering statistic when it comes to causing lung cancer. Even constant exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke can potentially cause cancer. Over exposure to harmful UV rays causes skin cancer. Similarly substances like betel, betel juice (paan) causes cancer of the mouth and throat. Alcohol consumption also has been linked to cancer, especially because of acetaldehyde.  

Those working in certain industries that involve inhaling wood dust, coal industry (mines), asbestos, arsenic, aluminium, painting etc – these are all highly carcinogenic agents.  
The link between obesity and cancer is complex and research is still ongoing. But it can be a potential cause because morbid obesity definitely impairs hormones, whilst putting other pressures on the body. This in turn can cause faulty mitosis, resulting in cancerous growth.
Your lifestyle also is important – if you eat a lot of junk food, by junk, I mean just that – junk. That is, your diet has no healthy balance of carbohydrates and proteins – it’s just sugar, trans-saturated fat and sodium. You are essentially screwing up your internal systems – right from your hormones to the functioning of your liver and digestive system. Maintain this long enough, and something in your diet could cause a faulty cell mitosis. Before you know it, you’ll have a growth on your colon, for example. In other words, those fries may not directly cause cancer, but can be cancer-inducing. But lifestyle is not just about food. Stress has become a part of lifestyle that has wide-ranging consequences on physiology. From ulcers to tension headaches, palpitations to panic attacks – stress has a finger in the pie. Constant stress can once again screw up your hormones, make you obese and you can become a sitting duck for cancer in your fifties. Sexual choices, sexual behaviour is also a part of lifestyle. Unprotected sex with multiple partners – well that just opens a huge can of worms. HPV in women can cause ovarian cancer. HIV can suppress the immune system and as a fall out, one can become vulnerable to cancer.

Certain medical treatments also could cause cancer – treatments that suppress immune systems like chemotherapy. Imbalance in the hormone estrogen also is implicated in cancer – thus treatments that involve this hormone, especially postmenopausal treatments can cause cancer.

Given that we are increasingly in the clutches of manufactured foods, beverages and highly industrialised environments, it becomes all the more important to take charge of our health. Starting right now. We can’t control what we are born with – but we can control what we become. It is okay if we don’t become anything worth mentioning – but it is worth your while to become healthy.

In the next blog, I will discuss the latest cancer treatments.

NOTE: If you are interested in cell physiology, perhaps you should borrow this book from your library– Molecular Biology of The Cell by Bruce Alberts et al. I said borrow because the price hurts.

If you want to know more details about causes of cancer and especially carcinogens and their classifications, you can visit this link.  

And finally, if you can please sponsor my 5k in any small way, I'd be indebted. Thank you in advance. You can send your donation online - your funds directly go to Cancer Research folks (not in my bank :) ) Here is my page -


© Sumana Khan - 2015



  1. A worthy cause and an informative post. Way to go, Sumana.