Ever since Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer in 1971 through the signing of the National Cancer Act,[i] over a hundred billion dollars has been spent by our government on research and drug development in an attempt to eradicate the disease, with trillions more spent by the cancer patients themselves, but with disappointing results.
Even after four decades of waging full-scale conventional (surgery and chemo) and nuclear (radiotherapy) war against cancer, close to one in every four Americans will be diagnosed with the disease within their lifetimes. Could this colossal failure reflect how profoundly misunderstood the condition is, and misguided are our attempts to prevent and treat it?
The time has come to shift the conceptual framework away from the idea that cancer is something bad that happens to the body, to something the body does in order to survive vis-à-vis an increasingly toxic and nutrient-deprived environment. Only then we will begin to unravel the mystery behind the colossal failure of the conventional medical system and why the 'war against cancer' will only be successful when we embrace our enemy with greater compassion and understanding, instead of blasting it (and ourselves) into oblivion.
For the past half century, the "Mutational Theory" has provided the prevailing explanation for the cause of most cancers, where, as the story goes, accumulated mutations to the DNA within the nucleus of our cells lead some to "go berserk," their "insane" behavior a result of multiple destructive events to the intelligent code within the cell (DNA) that keep them acting in a 'civilized' manner relative to the larger bodily whole.
In this view, these rogue cells clone themselves inordinately, spreading outward in a characteristically cancerous manner (cancer = Greek for "crab"), not unlike the characteristics of an infectious process within the host, eventually obstructing vital processes, resulting in morbidity and death. One paper summarizes this view as follows:
- Cancer is derived from a single somatic cell that has accumulated multiple DNA mutations.
- The default state of cell proliferation in metazoan (animal life) is quiescence
- Cancer is a disease of cell proliferation caused by mutations in genes that control proliferation and the cell cycle.
The problem with this view is that over 100 cancer-promoting genes (oncogenes) have already been discovered nested deep within our genome – hardly a byproduct of chance mutation within individual cells. Proliferation may very well be the default state of all cells, and much of the behavior of healthy, well-differentiated cells in higher animals is a regulatory overlay (suppressing ancient genes) on top of a far more ancient program which becomes unmasked during carcinogenesis.
Cancer, therefore, may be an "evolutionary throwback" to a time before we became multicellular organisms and a more rudimentary type of cooperation between cells existed (i.e. tumor) which enabled them to survive in a dramatically different, and perhaps far harsher environment.
Cancer cells are, in fact, surprisingly well-coordinated for cells that are supposed to be the result of strictly random mutation. They are capable of building their own blood supply (angiogenesis), are able to defend themselves by silencing cancer-suppression genes, secreting corrosive enzymes to move freely throughout the body, alter their metabolism to live in low oxygen and acidic environments, and know how to remove their own surface-receptor proteins to escape detection by white blood cells.
These complex behaviors, which involve the type of cooperation between cells which is the very definition of Metazoan behavior (multicellularity, i.e. animal life), call into question the view that mutation within 'rogue cells' is the primary cause of cancer. What if cancer was the unmasking of a more ancient survival program within the cell, activated as a last ditch effort to survive an increasingly hostile bodily environment, saturated through with carcinogenic and immunotoxic agents?
There is plenty of evidence to support this view. For instance, in the pre-Metazoan era, at the base of the "Tree of Life," programmed cell death (apoptosis) – a form of cell suicide -- which is necessary to produce highly differentiated tissues within complex multicellular organisms, had not yet developed; especially since just surviving the harsh environment would have favored selecting for traits that resisted cell death, i.e. immortalization, as is characteristic of cancer cells. The inability of cancer cells to undergo apoptosis indicates that the cell is drawing from a genetic toolkit associated with a more ancient cellular incarnation….