What Is Cancer And Why Do We Get It?

Published September 18, 2014
Updated October 3, 2019

Clearing up a few misconceptions about what exactly cancer is, why we get it, and what we can do about it.

Without a doubt, if you were to walk outside and ask someone, anyone on the street: Would you give 5 years of your life to cure cancer?, they’d invariably say Of course! But I have some unfortunate news for you: there is no one disease called “cancer”, and there won’t be just one cure.

Cancer is just a result of the way we’re built, and has hundreds of known environmental causes, from viruses to bacteria to exposure to chemicals. The root cause of cancer is something that can’t really be fixed, and it’s something we’re all susceptible to: clerical errors in our genetics.

Think of your genes as a series of instructions for making a you. These instructions are all printed together on the same sheet of paper, so that instructions for making an eyeball cell and instructions for making a liver cell might run into each other on the same line. It might read something like this:

Get protein from Joe and then shape it into a ball and send it over to the eye get protein from Joe and paint it red and send it into the blood vessels get protein from Joe and add fat and send it to the liver get protein from Joe... and so on.

What your body does, and it usually does so very well, is to chop up these instructions into discrete bits and send them where they need to go. The problem is: these instructions, genes, are all on one chromosome, and when those instructions are dictated to another cell to create more stuff, things don’t quite line up, and a small piece of information is always lost.

But there is a failsafe: telomerase, which is an enzyme that adds a piece of code that says “STOP HERE” (called a telomere) and lines everything up nicely. It’s like a game of “telephone”: your DNA whispers the instructions for making a cell to the little engineers inside of your cells that do the job, and the instructions propagate from worker to worker, telomerase reminding them that the job is done. For the most part, the message is clearly received, and the body goes on doing what it does best. With the use of telomerase, our body is able to continue living- rats with artificially decreased telomerase production aged at a rapid rate, often dying after a year as opposed to five or six.

PET Scan of adrenal gland cancer.

PET Scan of adrenal gland cancer. Source: Indian Journal of Nuclear Medicine

So why? Why do our bodies make these mistakes in the first place?

As we age (or in the case of childhood cancers, completely randomly) the errors pile up, much like the emails in Kanye’s inbox pile up pretty much every time he opens his mouth. This also explains why smoking (yes, my herb-toking friends, even smoking weed) causes lung cancer: smoke irritates the lungs, killing lung cells and causing damage.

Any kind of smoke, whether it’s from the exhaust of a car or from a little red-and-white cardboard package, will cause the cells in your lungs to die and have to be replaced. Any kind of wear-and-tear will lead to more errors, simply as a result of volume. But also, cancer occurs when cells just have to make a lot of stuff; this is why prostate cancers and thyroid cancers are also quite common, because they’re always throwing out hormones and other secretions.

Woman undergoing cancer treatment.

Woman undergoing cancer treatment. Source: State Column

This means the little engineers have to continue to receive and execute instructions from your DNA, over and over and over. You can only keep this up perfectly for so long. Some are less fortunate than others, and the erroneous instructions get carried out by your cells. (Ever been to a Chipotle during the lunch rush? Do you always get exactly what you ordered?)

really hungry set of cells, so it throws up new blood vessels to start feeding and nurturing what has now become a tumor.

Because they never get the message to stop, cancer cells are immortal. Malignant cells were harvested from a woman named Henrietta Lacks in 1951 and are still living and dividing in labs all over the world- the study of which is leading to new developments in cancer and AIDS research, just to name a few.

So, if cancer is inherent to the way we are built; if it’s such a powerful disease with hundreds of variations in cause and etiology, what can we do about it? It’s unlikely that we will ever be able to attack cancer on a genetic level, at least not in our lifetime.

The problem with cancer cells is that our medicines and treatments cannot tell the difference between a cancer cell and a normal one; all cancer treatments do damage to healthy and cancerous cells alike. But, with the help of properly-directed research funds, awareness, and donated cells like the ones from Ms. Lacks, treating cancer is becoming more targeted and effective every day.

Chris Altman
Chris Altman is a freelancing writer and artist based out of Brooklyn, NY.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Altman, Chris. "What Is Cancer And Why Do We Get It?." AllThatsInteresting.com, September 18, 2014, https://allthatsinteresting.com/what-is-cancer. Accessed June 23, 2024.