Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer

This is the headline article (Op-Ed) in today’s Sunday Review section of The New York Times (NYT).  It is written by a former NYT reporter and author of a book called The Cancer Chronicles that was well reviewed a few months ago.  I have not read the book.  The author discusses why heart disease deaths have declined substantially from 38 deaths per 10,000 people in 1958 to 18 deaths per 10,000 people in 2010. Concurrently, cancer deaths at 19 per 10,000 in 1958 have only declined to 17 per 10,000 in 2010.  The basic premise of the article is that “heart disease and cancer are primarily diseases of aging.  Fewer people succumbing to one means more people living long enough to die from the other”.  He explains that deaths from heart disease have declined due to “diet, exercise and medicines for blood pressure and cholesterol.  When problems arise, they can often be treated as mechanical problems – clogged piping, worn-out valves – for which there may be a temporary fix”. “Because of these interventions, people between the ages of 55 and 84 are increasingly likely to die from cancer than heart disease.  The increase in longevity has been why the statistics show more cancer deaths.  “A century ago, average life expectancy was in the low to mid-50’s.  Now it is almost 79. The median age of cancer death is 72”.  There is a very interesting graphic that illustrates these statistics – it is in the link below:

The author is pessimistic about a cure for cancer. “It is not so much a disease as a phenomenon, the result of a basic evolutionary compromise. As a body lives and grows, its cells are constantly dividing, copying their DNA — this vast genetic library — and bequeathing it to the daughter cells. They in turn pass it to their own progeny: copies of copies of copies. Along the way, errors inevitably occur. Some are caused by carcinogens but most are random misprints.”   He says that most of the improvement in cancer longevity statistics comes from prevention and from improvements in mortality from childhood cancers.  The author goes on to say “for most cancers the only identifiable cause is entropy, the random genetic mutations that are an inevitable part of multicellular life.” 

The full article is in the link below:
This is a realistic article that does not give false hope about an imminent cure for cancer.  Interesting reading.