The other day I wrote a blog on the Natural Aging Process called "A Birth in the Opposite Direction", about how our cells copy each other very well when we are children and then eventually make more and more mistakes. I used the example of photo copying "The Ode to Joy" sheet music making one copy from each previous copy, and the first 100 copies are clear. Then like any copy you start to see a blurred line or an ink imperfection and our cells do the same thing. In addition our T-cells which can eat the mistake copies slow down as we age. So, not only are we making more imperfect cell copies as we age our T-cells are slower. Thus mistake cell copies sometimes begin to replicate if not caught and this is cancer.
Cancer can occur at any age but it is more common when we are older. Or from cancer causing stressors such as sun (basically tanning makes our skin cells replicate faster so creating more mistake cells) or exposure to chemicals, smoking of course, any agent that disrupts the cellular processes. The natural lifespan due to there being a finite number of times the human cells can divide itself (Hayflick limit), also cell copy mistakes increase with each subsequent division. Thus the average lifespan even without serious illness can be 70-80 years old. Medical science does not know how to slow the human bodys' cell replication in a meaningful way nor does it know how to keep cells from making mistakes as they copy themselves from the previous copy. That is the natural aging process. We age intracellularly. Wrinkles are skin cells being copied imperfectly. What medical science does know how to do is to kill cells. Especially fast growing cells. So when a mistake cancer cell begins to divide and grows into a tumor. They often use a variety of medicines that kill cells in different ways at different stages of the cell cycle. This medicine is called chemotherapy. It is put in the bloodstream by either taking pills and absorbing it in the stomache or liquid in the bloodstream.
I want to note that our nervous system and heart are very slow turnover types of cells. That is why neurological or cardiac dammage is very slow or non-existant to repair. There is some research about spinal cord injuries rejuvination and the possibility of babies being able to repair their hearts up to a certain age. For the most part these are very slow growing cells overall. That is why when chemotherapy is given to people theses organs are fairly protected. There is a lot of research on this but little can be done to actually repair these once injured.
Cancer is often a fast growing cell not always. So once this mistake copy appears and is not eaten by T-cells, the next step is for the errant cell to start copying itself. This becomes a tumor or leukemia. These cells can break off and travel to the bone or brain and start growing there also. Primary site brain and neurological cancers are more common in children and young people. What chemotherapy can do if the cell is responsive is to kill the cell. Radiation can also stop fast growing cells or shrink them. Also Radioactive tablets are sometimes used for prostate cancer to stop the cell proliferation. I want to note that fast growing cells such as in our sex organs are very prone to cell mistakes that is why breast and cervix cancer and prostate are prevelant. Prostate cancer is particularily common. Basically most men will have a cancerous prostate of some sort as a part of aging and most will die of something else totally unrelated like heart trouble or stroke.
Prostate cells are growing fast so they make a lot of mistakes as men age and thus the commoness of prostate cancer. There is a move to just watch if the prostate cancer progresses and not to do surgery as the surgery has a lot of quality of life issues around it including impotence and incontinence. So depending on your age and seriousness of the prostate cancer some doctors are now recommending radiation or chemo and to avoid surgery if possible. In some cases the cancer has grown into other surrounding organs and so surgery needs to be done. So, a lot of men will have prostate cancer and if the doctor monitors the situation nowadays depending on the persons age and size of the tumor. Doctors might choose to take a wait and see attitude and not have surgery. About ten years ago most people would automatically would have surgery it is not the case today.
Our skin, hair, the lining of our mouths and intestinal tracts all the way to our rectum is lined with fast growing cells. These cells heal quickly and are always growing. So when chemotherapy is given to try and kill the fast growing cancer cell it also unfortunately kills the other fast growing cells of our hair skin etc. the nausea, vomitting is a result of the irritation to our GI tract lining. The doctors give chemotherapy that is known to work on the type of cell and have a lot of evidence to substantiate effectiveness and prognosis about survival rates. If the cancer tumor shrinks it is good evidence that the chemotherapy is working. Sometimes for instance even after a breast cancer patient is free of the illness she might continue taking a pill for years that continuely kills fast growing cells. Often these people have a lot of skin problems due to the killing of all fast growing cells but it is effective in keeping the cancer from returning.
This is me wondering out loud to myself but I often thought that Elizabeth Edwards might have had breast cancer due to the hormone treatments she took to have the two children when she was in her fifties? As our bodies are replicating cells with lots of mistakes already at that age, so two pregnancies back to back like that in your fifties would create an environment for a lot of cell replication at an age where we might make a lot of cell mistakes. Of course this is just my thought and a lot of people have breast cancer in their fifties, the hormone treatments for the pregnancies might not have had anything to do with it. To continue if the chemotherapy works the mistake cancer cell is responsive to the medicine and dies and the tumor is made smaller. This can also be achieved with radiation killing the mistake cancer cell, and sometimes surgery the mistake cell can be removed.
I was already a registered nurse and my work paid for me to get my bachelors I took Anatomy and Pathophysiology for a year. I had a really excellent teacher and I worked very hard in the class and always enjoyed her lectures and although getting B's in both the fall and spring semester I had to work very hard for those B's. She often spoke about known cancer exposures and how to avoid them or augment their dammage. She was practicle in her approach to avoiding cancer exposure. For instance she said if you eat a hotdog drink a glass of lemonaide or orange juice with it as the vitamen C has been known to cut down on the cancer agents in cured meats. She also was into eating light in order so that our cells did not have so much energy to replicate. She said that eating 'light' of a varied diet was more effective than a vegetarian diet high in calories. Also wearing a light cream with sun screen for men and women as driving people got more sun than they thought and one side of our face usually ages faster due to sun exposure while driving. Hand washing to prevent viral transmission as little is know about how viruses impact cancer yet.
We don't have a whole lot of control over our cells making mistakes while replicating. I find it a bit sad that cancer has been considered something to hide and and often not spoken about in society. For me seeing how diagnosis is better and that they can specialize the chemotherapy sometimes with genetic markers or other ways to target the cancer cell, also finer and less invasive surgeries, less harmful radiation treatment, that there has been a 20% increase of cancer survival rates in the last ten years. Really without any major medical breakthroughs just improving current therapies.
Another thing I am relieved to see is that people are now being allowed to have all their feelings about having this illness and not just the stereotype brave and cheerful cancer patients. I think it is really unfair to have to deal with a serious medical illness and expect people to be optimistic about it. I read some information about people saying they feel pressured express gratitude or bland acceptance when getting a cancer diagnosis when its very frightening and disruptive. I am not a particularily religious person and try to be honest and more spiritual but I tend to pray god does not give us more than we can handle. Cancer is a lot to handle.
I am definately no expert and this is a generalized explanation about how cancer cells could be killed by chemotherapy. I learned this small part about cancer treatment while being a home care nurse for two years 94-96. I have a good friend who is a cancer nurse and she could probally explain treatments in great detail and also has experience with people who have gone through cancer treatment. For me when I was a home care nurse I would draw the blood of the cancer patients on Saturdays either going to their house or to the Cancer temporary lodging they had for the hospital. I would sometimes call the doctor for medications for mouth soreness or pain meds and help the families if I could in other ways.
One of the cool things about the cancer lodging was that there were always a lot of people around to help out and support each other. I just wanted to explain the basics about fast growing cells and how chemotherapys works in a generalized way. There are a lot better qualified people than me to explain this stuff. I think cancer support groups are helpful, I particularily like the groups that have a volunteer leader to guide the discussion. Sometimes at the initial diagnosis seeing a therapist one or two times as a family to start to help everyone understand the illness and to gain ways in which to cope better is beneficial.