Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer


EVERY New Year when the government publishes its Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, it is followed by a familiar lament. We are losing the war against cancer.

Half a century ago, the story goes, a person was far more likely to die from heart disease. Now cancer is on the verge of overtaking it as the No. 1 cause of death.

Troubling as this sounds, the comparison is unfair. Cancer is, by far, the harder problem — a condition deeply ingrained in the nature of evolution and multicellular life. Given that obstacle, cancer researchers are fighting and even winning smaller battles: reducing the death toll from childhood cancers and preventing — and sometimes curing — cancers that strike people in their prime. But when it comes to diseases of the elderly, there can be no decisive victory. This is, in the end, a zero-sum game.

The newest cancer report, which came out in mid-December, put the best possible face on things. If one accounts for the advancing age of the population — with the graying of the baby boomers, death itself is on the rise — cancer mortality has actually been decreasing bit by bit in recent decades. But the decline has been modest compared with other threats.

Written By: George Johnson
continue to source article at nytimes.com


  1. 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.

    A saddening thought, but then it seems we must accept that death is inevitable, sooner or later. 🙁

    Actually, this reminds me of a scene from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, in which the Regis Professor of Chronology explains that causality is a bit like badly fitted wallpaper: you press down on one corner, and another corner just pops up, and you can’t tell in advance which corner it will be because of so many factors to consider. I won’t spoil it in case anyone hasn’t read that book or that scene yet (and I strongly recommend that you do, especially if you’re a Douglas Adams fan), but the context was quite saddening, too.

  2. Cancer is not ONE disease. It is hundreds of diseases. Cancer is not easy to statistically analyze and the result is that it is not easy to treat. What i mean is, no one really knows how many cells turn cancerous and are eradicated by the immune system and never become anything more than a dead cell. We have statistics on cases that progress to a specific detectable point. In the case of Pancreatic cancer, the detectable point is usually very late in the progression of the disease. Other cancers are detectable very early and have better prognosis.

    My aunt recently passed of breast cancer. She suspected that she had it but was somehow inhibited from showing her breasts to a doctor. It progressed for four years FOUR YEARS before she sought help. It ended badly, with fulminating sepsis and, well, horror.

    We have many early screeners for many of the myriad diseases that we call cancer. Ca 125’s, CEA’s, mammograms, prostate exams, all are awesome arrows in our quiver. However, the assumption that we can “eradicate” cancer is quite ambitious and makes me want to roll up my sleeves and help. However, in reality, there are many quantities that remain elusive and are essential to figuring out this most formidable of foes.

    Can we do it? Well, I sure hope so. Baby steps, baby steps….

  3. There is an excellent overview of cancer in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book. “The Emperor of all Maladies- a Biography of Cancer”. The author is a hematologist/oncologist and, happily, writes very well. The prologue and a bit more are HERE. It appears you can find the entire book as a free PDF if you look around.


  4. TL;DR version:
    Cancer is organic rust; and you can’t immunize against or eradicate a statistical certainty.

  5. In reply to #4 by ANTIcarrot:

    TL;DR version:
    Cancer is organic rust; and you can’t immunize against or eradicate a statistical certainty.

    It is the DNA version of bit rot.

  6. This is just an another good reason why evolutionary concepts can’t be ignored. They are the basis of all life on this planet. They underly all agriculture and animal husbandry. If we are to cope with global warming or any other environmental or ecological challenges the present and the future will throw at us we will need to understand the selection pressures that these changes are and will be having on all the inhabitants of the biosphere. Lastly, as this article points out, cancer is an evolutionary disease with the evolution occurring inside our bodies and ending there with our deaths, under most circumstances. And this is not the only area within the medical field where evolution plays a role. I see the consequences of genetics and evolution daily in my neurological practice.
    We who support an understanding of evolution are remiss for not emphasizing the pragmatic aspects of these concepts more or at least as much as the truth or beauty of evolution. Somebody needs to write a book and start giving TED and YouTube talks about this.

  7. I often tell folks that they will die of cancer, if they live long enough. This article explains that concept.

  8. A useful distillation of the causes of death.

    By which I mean that it gives straight forward guidance on how to stay fit and healthy, while simultaneously pointing out that which cannot be avoided no matter how hard one tries.

    In other words, looking after the heart is fairly straight forward, but if you have a genetic predisposition to cancer it’s a lot more difficult; while at the same time we are all to a greater or lesser extent prone to it.

    I find that quite heartening, because it provides guidance through the beautiful woods that we are all passing through!

    At one time my closest friend was an undertaker, whose father died of prostate cancer, but despite undergoing tests at six monthly intervals because he knew he was prone, he did eventually succumbed to the disease.

    He and I were born the same week, so although I’m sad that he’s died, I now value and enjoy my life much more.

  9. Cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s (& Parkinsons & various other neural disorders) appear to have a common cause. How the consequences play out is mainly just genetic luck. They’re all different disease, but all the same in some ways.

    The correlation with age might be just because it usually takes such a long time to accumulate the damage that eventually leads to the rate of degradation exceeding the body’s ability to mitigate that accumulating damage. Though the pace of age deterioration can be accelerated by confounding factors like ingesting tobacco, sugar, and alcohol.

    Some of the molecular systems subject to damage eventually include the mechanisms that mitigate and repair accumulating DNA damage. The first systems to succumb will be those most directly exposed to chronic toxin contact (glycation impact on arterial surfaces – which leads to elevated blood pressure and eventually cardiovascular disease), then the things most crucial to living processes – the energy organelles, followed eventually by damage to the extraordinarily complex cellular systems that are most error sensitive and highly active with greatly amplified downstream implications. (DNA replication errors – stuffs up various proteins production and eventually leads to tumours. Cmbine this with impaired mitigation processes and you get tumours that might become eventually become serious problems.)

    It is a dose dependent response – time: many decades of exposure to the chronic toxins being the dose.

    There’s nothing special about old age, other than the elapsed time taken to grow old. Humans aren’t all that different to most other animals, which don’t really get weak and frail progressively from maturity, or even earlier in some humans. Wild animals suddenly get frail in their very old age (for the animal). While some humans are capable of extraordinary intellectual capabilities and running marathons etc. well into very old age. So there’s nothing inevitable about deterioration and senescence, and eventual death, from cancer, heart attack, stroke, or Alzheimer’s. (Possibly excepting those drinkers and smokers who pretty much gave up on physical activity or crossword puzzles very early in life.)

    If you eliminate cancer, cardiovascular disease (& strokes), neurological degradation, and hormone secretion dysfunctions (which cause similar disastrous cascades as for neurological dysfunctions) then people will probably die of the reasons that humans evolved to die of in ‘normal’ circumstances. i.e murder. This is known from direct scientific studies of the few remaining hunter gather populations and also from anecdotal reports, often in personal letters, from medical officers during the early colonial era when European explorers began to occupy far flung locations occupied by Maoris, Aborigines etc. i.e. Not that many heart attacks or cancers reported among the elderly natives compared to European settlers. But plenty of native homicides.

    It was once assumed that the relative insignificance of heart disease, cancer etc. was just because uncivilised people had very hard lives and didn’t live that long. This is now suspected to be misleading, after compensating for typical native homicide rates. The oldest people effectively being the most effective killers. This may be why humans have evolved grey hair – it’s a warning signal to naïve youngsters to keep clear. Similar with chimps and gorillas.

    Theory being that if you live long enough then eventually you will inevitably get pissed off enough to murder at least someone, if only to set the appropriate example to deter the others. And vice versa. Internet blogs make it a great deal easier to piss people off. So the downside of eliminating the major NCDs might be that the internet becomes significantly more dangerous.

    What we really need is an increase in the murder rate. (Greatly offset by a proportionately much greater decrease in the NCD rate!)

  10. In my post apropos of my funeral director friend I waffled on so much that I forgot to make the point I set out to establish; he did the embalming himself, and although he was, as are doctors, fully abreast of the stats on the causes of death, despite every effort on his part he still couldn’t avoid contracting prostate cancer.

    It’s a particularly dreadful form of the disease, which spreads to the bones causing excruciating pain.

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