"Being right does matter - and the science tribe has a long track record of getting things right in the end. Modern society is built on things it got right" - Joel Achenbach

Friday, 13 March 2015

Why diet and lifestyle won't cure your cancer, part 3

Where am I going with this, you might ask?

The point of all of the information thus far is to bring across the point that cancer is not a foreign pathogen which has invaded the body, it is your own cells. Even with all of the mutations which separate it from its siblings, any cancer will be almost identical to its siblings in terms of the genetic makeup of the cell.

Since the mechanism which normally prevents this sort of thing is contained within each individual cell, and each cell can only use this mechanism on itself, there is no way for the body to destroy a cancer cell from the outside.

This is why cancer is such a terrible disease, and why we haven't found a definitive, 100% effective cure yet. We aren't trying to kill a foreign pathogen, we're trying to find a way to kill you, but only the parts of you which are cancerous, which are almost identical to the rest of you.

Many claims made by alternative health 'practitioners', and specifically the diet-related ones, are that the source of cancers are dietary or environmental and therefore the cure is dietary; this does not follow from reality.
While it's true that mutations can be brought on by exposure to things which specifically mutate DNA (radiation, alcohol, chemicals both naturally occurring and manufactured), once you've received that initial mutation to the self-repairing mechanism that cell is essentially a ticking time bomb.

Treatment not only needs to selectively target these cells over non-cancerous cells, but it needs to do so reliably and thoroughly otherwise the cancer will simply reform.
Excision (cutting the tumour out), radiotherapy and chemotherapy are currently some of our best means of treating tumours.

The reason that these are the only effective means is that, although we can easily kill cancerous cells within laboratory conditions, it is far more difficult to selectively kill the certain cancerous cells within a patient's body which are surrounded by millions of near-identical, non-cancerous cells.
These treatments are effective is because they ignore the DNA and instead target the way cancerous cells act which distinguish them from normal cells (e.g. rapid replication). I could devote several pages to describing how each of these treatments work and I may do so one day, but the point to realise is that any successful treatment for cancer must fulfil these specific criteria.

How then, do alternative treatments work? How could the exclusion of mutation-causing chemicals in your body, or a change in your daily routine fix pre-existing mutations which your own body or even modern medicine can't fix? Failing that, how can these techniques induce cell suicide in ONLY the cancerous cells?
The simple answer is that there is no evidence at all to suggest that they can and no reliably documented case that they ever have, yet proponents always assure the consumer that their treatment is effective.

These 'alternative' treatments are not effective, and people have died chasing this false dream sold to them by a salesperson.

Once you have a cancer, any attempt at fixing your diet or lifestyle is doing nothing but limiting mutations from occurring, it won't make the cancer go away.
This is the awful truth of cancer, and I don't relish the idea of breaking it to anybody who either has or may in the future have cancer (1 in 3, remember?).

All I have left to say is simply that there is hope, your surgeons and doctors can help you and will do everything in their power to cure your disease, but you must trust them and be wary that you will encounter people who will attempt to lure you in with false hopes and promises of a cure.

These people cannot cure you, they barely understand the disease they're talking about.

Why diet and lifestyle won't cure your cancer, part 2

Two fundamental principles of evolution are random mutation and natural selection. An animal mutates in a way which gives it a slight advantage (bigger wings, etc) and if the environment favours an animal with this advantage, it is more likely to survive and have offspring which also have that advantage.
This, in a nutshell, is a perfect metaphor for cancer.

Your body is made of cells, and each cell contains a complete copy of your DNA. Genes are sections of your DNA which, when read by the cell, provide a set of instructions with which to make structures called 'proteins'. Proteins designed to do different things carry out all the functions of the cell, from making chemical reactions happen (enzymes), forming the wall of the cell (lipoproteins), to reproducing or committing suicide.
Remember those last two, we'll come back to them later.

The cells of your body replicate constantly at varying rates in order to keep up with how often those cells need replacing (red blood cells replicate slower than skin cells). Remember what we talked about with evolution, how mutations in a parent can be passed on to their offspring? That applies to every cell in your body. Mutations in DNA which occur in a cell are passed on to any cells made by that cell as it divides.

Every cell in your body can be thought of (for the purposes of this example, this isn't a literal definition) as a miniature animal. The only difference is that rather than each one competing with each other for survival, they all cooperate. Each individual cell might be able to get bigger and fatter on their own, but their cooperation means that they can live as an entire organism (an animal comprised of cells) and have a much better chance of long-term survival.

In order to facilitate this, they have all developed a way to stave off evolution because they don't want to gain an advantage over each other. When cells divide, there is ordinarily a mechanism in place by which the cell checks its DNA to make sure it hasn't received any mutations which give it an edge or disadvantage over its siblings. If it has mutated, the cell will attempt to fix the mutation before replicating. If the cell can't fix the mutation, it will commit suicide for the greater good of its siblings and the organism they make up.

It's a good system which usually works very well, 2 out of 3 people will go their entire lives never contracting cancer.
There is, however, one fundamental flaw:
 genes, made of DNA, are what provide the instructions for the mechanism by which cells look for and repair DNA.
Since genes themselves can mutate, the mechanism which fixes mutations can itself mutate. When this happens you get a cell which can't correctly fix mutations.
Now that it can't properly check itself for mutations, if the cell receives any further mutations which do give it an edge over its siblings, it can't fix them or commit suicide for the greater good.
Eventually, mutations occur which cause this cell to do things it normally wouldn't do. It starts replicating faster than it normally would, it starts growing bigger than it normally would, it might start invading areas it wouldn't normally go.

Sound familiar? It should, because at this point you have a cancer.

Why diet and lifestyle won't cure your cancer, part 1

I'm a cancer survivor.
I don't like playing that card, and I'm getting it out of the way quickly. The reason I find it necessary to mention at all is to illustrate a point: I get it.
I didn't go through radiotherapy or chemotherapy, as far as cancers go mine was quite tame and was fully removed by a partial colectomy (removal of part of my large intestine). I may not understand what it's like to endure a more severe cancer, but I do understand one thing:
I understand what it's like to receive a diagnosis which potentially means the end of your life. I know what it feels like to have an appendix forcibly added to every one of your future dreams and aspirations which reads:
*If I survive the cancer
This is a terrible thing to happen and many, in their desperation, turn to anything and everything which could possibly give them an edge against their disease.
A woman died recently because her cancer was not like mine, hers was very bad. Traditional radiotherapy and chemotherapy failed and the only remaining solution was a disfiguring and disabling amputation. In disgust of this procedure, the woman turned desperately to a therapy which revolved around dietary and lifestyle changes for a cure; something which ultimately led to her death.
I will say no more on her case, and I encourage any readers to hold comments; there is no use ridiculing her situation or decisions now.

This and the next two subsequent posts are not an attack on people like this woman, nor are they an attack on the procedures and those who claim their effectiveness.
This is simply a description of exactly what it is they're trying to treat and why the proposed 'cures' can't possibly work.