The Prospect of Cancer Does Not Worry Me
Permalink | View Comments (15) | Post Comment | | Posted by Reason

Sooner or later, we'll all develop cancer. The only people who fail to develop cancer are those struck down by other causes; you should think of cancer as less a disease and more a natural consequence of mammalian biochemistry, a form of runaway failure of cellular processes that are normally vital to health and longevity. The biochemical damage that occurs with aging makes the failures that cause cancer ever more likely to occur, and also renders the immune system ever less able to destroy cancerous cells in their earliest stages. If you're a mature individual, the chances are that your immune system has destroyed a few very early stage cancers already, and you are none the wiser. But that defense system is slowly failing with age, just like the rest of your biology.

I should add that there are, as ever in biology, a few noteworthy exceptions to my sweeping statements above, such as the naked mole rat. But even there I'd wager these animals would develop cancer if they but lived long enough - they just have a better first line of defense than we do.

Given the apparent inevitability of cancer, why am I unconcerned? In short, I have perhaps two or three decades to go before I enter the high risk years for developing cancer. I am confident that by that time, very effective targeted cancer therapies with few side-effects will be widely available. Consider that:

  • Cancer research is perhaps the most highly funded and widely supported of any modern distributed medical development program.
  • Over the past five years, very impressive anti-cancer technology demonstrations have been made. These are a new breed of targeted therapy, built using the latest tools of modern biotechnology. Immune cells, viruses, or nanoparticles are engineered to home in on the distinctive surface chemistry of cancer cells - and then destroy them.
  • With a sufficiently good targeted therapy, even aggressive metastasis of cancer becomes a minor inconvenience. Those spreading cancer cells will still be found and killed, no matter where they are in the body.
  • The new breed of cancer therapies are as well placed as any new biotechnology could expect to be to make their way through the horrors of an FDA approval process. A decade and many fortunes will be lost to regulation, but commercial therapies will emerge - and if not in the US, elsewhere in the world. Medical tourism to destinations outside the US will itself be a huge and thriving economy a decade from now if the FDA continues its present path.

Cancer is, by and large, not a rapid or unexpected killer. It is certainly not faster than the time taken to apply a targeted therapy of the sort presently under development in the laboratory. Think of a worst case scenario: a brain cancer discovered late and already well into the process of metastasis. You started to have headaches and blurred vision, saw a physician, and learned that, without treatment, you only have a few months left to live. If that were today, you would have to come to terms with your fate and your ill luck. But in 2030, your status would place you at the head of the line for a clinical appointment, and within a week you would undergo an infusion of biological killing machines - viruses, assembled nanoparticles, or some form of natural or artificial cell - configured to recognize and slay your cancer. A month later, there isn't a trace left of your advanced tumor and its offshoots.

This is why I am not worried about cancer. The plausible future is one in which we will all develop cancer, and very few of us will be any more than slightly inconvenienced by it.

Comments

I agree. The number one risk factor that one should be concerned about is any kind of cardiovascular problem, specifically thrombotic events. Unlike cancer, which affects almost exclusively old people, stroke and heart attacks often occur in fairly young people (40's and 50's) and can be very debilitating, if it does not kill you.

Stroke is my biggest nightmare and should be yours, too. I take supplements to reduce my blood sugar levels. I believe that increased blood sugar levels (e.g. metabolic syndrome) is the number one cause of cardiovascular disease (far more than increased cholesterol). Indeed, most cases of increased LDL cholesterol are caused by early metabolic syndrome. I have come to believe that metabolic syndrome (sometimes called diabetes) is the number one cause of health morbidity in humans and it is 100% preventable.
You are as young as your arteries.

The other risk factor to avoid is car accidents (seriously, this causes more morbidity than anything except stroke). Drive a large car and drive carefully. It should go without saying that the safety belt should always be used.

By no means should you ever consider riding a motorcycle.

Posted by: kurt9 at January 12, 2010 6:28 PM

Kurt9,
What supplements are effective in reducing blood sugars?

Posted by: TomC at January 12, 2010 10:06 PM

I've heard resveratrol increases insulin sensitivity and thus reduces glucose levels.

Posted by: Cameron at January 13, 2010 7:22 AM

TomC,

Resveratrol, Bilberry Extract, Chromium Picolinate, LEF mix without copper. Also, diet is important. Avoid excess sugar and carbohydrates. Fat and Protein are OK within reasonable limits. The key is eating a reasonable amount of food each day.

I visited Germany once on business a few years ago. As you know, German food is very heavy. Yet, I noticed very few fat Germans, even among the old. The reason, as I noticed whenever I ate dinner in a restaurant, is that they eat relatively small serving portions, then stop eating. They do not eat the large portions that many Americans do. Hence, few of them are overweight.

Avoidance of metabolic syndrome (diabetes) is probably the single best thing you can do right now to increase your chances of making it to the post-mortal age.

Posted by: kurt9 at January 13, 2010 8:15 AM

Kurt9,
Thanks for your input - much appreciated.

Posted by: TomC at January 13, 2010 9:52 AM

There is a very nice discussion forum on supplements over on the immortality institute website (www.imminst.org). I have found this forum to be very informative.

Posted by: kurt9 at January 13, 2010 10:54 AM

@Nicolai: more specifically, the infusion of donor granulocytes from someone who is immune to your particular type of cancer. This might be thought of as another form of targeted immune therapy - the big difference being that you're using found tools rather than created tools. See:

http://blog.methuselahfoundation.org/2007/09/sens3_report_the_gift_versus_c_1.html

But yes, granulocyte therapy appears very promising. It looks like something that could be made to work quite well in the clinic even in absence of a full understanding as to why it works. e.g. a donor network, matching with a library against a person's cancer biochemistry, and so forth.

Livly and the DO Foundation appear to be going for the full understanding route with their present fundraising efforts, however. Identify the biochemical basis of why the therapy works, and see if everyone's granulocytes can be altered in situ to kill their cancers.

Posted by: Reason at January 13, 2010 11:09 AM

I am now 30 and getting cancer is probably my number one fear. I know that statistically speaking it shouldn't be but it is. Then comes my fear of heart attack. I think I am a bit of a hypochondriac =)

Posted by: Jonathan at January 13, 2010 1:33 PM

OK, Reason - how old are you? I haven't seen you post your age - but I'm guessing.. 40-43. I may have missed you stating how old you are.

I think it would be useful to your readers to know how old you are so that they can better understand your point of view.

Thanks.

I'm 35 - and I'm guessing you're not much older. So if that is confirmed, when I read your entries I will consider both of us "in the same boat".

Posted by: Dan C at January 14, 2010 2:00 PM

@Dan C: You should consider us in the same boat.

Posted by: Reason at January 14, 2010 2:23 PM

Thanks for sharing, Reason.

Also - keep up the good work on the site. I've been an avid reader for a few years now, and you are keeping the community's interest level up. Sometimes single-handedly.

Posted by: Dan C at January 14, 2010 6:44 PM

A trifle too sanguine methinks.

Cancer incidences are increasing; so is cancer mortality. The magic bullets so far declared don't seem to be doing the trick. Faith in such an approach may be misplaced.

Better prevention than cure. And the supposed cure rate of the medical profession is woefully low - only 2.3% of patients treated with chemo are alive 5 years later, etc.

CR and veganism is probably a better prevention and cure. See The China Study by Dr Campbell.

The terrain is all, not the trigger. The seed & soil paradigm is probably more helpful.

But good luck.

Posted by: Ian Clements at January 15, 2010 2:49 AM

@Ian Clements: The 2.3% figure you site is wrong and you probably heard it repeated by nature worship alt med cultists who just don't like modern medicine for ideological reasons. 2.3% is the cure rate for only ONE type of cancer taken from a whole long list; many other cancers have MUCH better cure rates. Most Western people survive cancer for many years even today. (Just think, do all those cancer survivors you know just happen to be part of this lucky 2.3%?) Also, I've never heard of Veganism shown to have a preventative effect against cancer; the China Study is about promoting animal rights and its health claims have been widely debunked. See: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=385)

There's little doubt that cancer treatments will get much better in the next few decades. What worries me is that cancer is evolution on an accelerated scale, and it only takes one cancer cell to evolve an immunity to any kind of treatment for it to come back. Therefore, I think Reason may be a bit overly optimistic.

Posted by: Kim at February 25, 2011 1:42 PM

I am a decade or so ahead of you and the curve of cancer mortality is just beginning for my cohort. Thus it is a higher priority for me. I plan to explore the link between cancer and aging, under this reductionistic fallacy: either (1) what I do has no effect, in which case, why bother living, or (2) I can make a substantive difference.

Posted by: alive at March 4, 2012 6:16 PM
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