The Lives and Deaths of Cells: Nancy under a Microscope
June 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’d intended this post to expose the microscopic nitty gritty of the lives and deaths of cells, to summarize some research into the causes of cancer to gear up for further posts into the ways it’s now treated.
That said, I’m overwhelmed with ideas, engulfed in hypotheses and blinded by science. There are as many theories to the causes of cancer as there are feathers on a bird, and I’m starting to lose my will to count: the bird keeps flying from my hand. It’s reassuring to know that many of these views on overlap; few are mutually exclusive and most support one another into providing a holistic approach to understanding cancer.
What is Cancer?
Most of you probably know cancer is a process of damaged cells multiplying out of control. Some sources consider cancer to originate as stem cells, undifferentiated cells set out with the intention to develop into normal functioning and differentiated breast cells, liver cells or blood cells. For a number of reasons, in the process of cancer forming, the undifferentiated cell doesn’t quite make it to become a functioning part of the entire body.
In a person with few or no predisposing factors of cancer, the immune system – or rather a complex series of processes by which cells have learnt to communicate with one another in order for the entire body to function optimally – takes care of damaged undifferentiated cells. In a perfectly healthy system, damaged cells follow instructions for apoptosis – or cell suicide – for the benefit of the whole organism.
However, cancer cells refuse their death sentences. Some literature likens this denial of death to a primitive survival cellular process, a mechanism by which our ancestors held onto in order to remain alive in the harshest of circumstances. After all, we all begin as simple celled organisms, holding on for life in the inner lining of tissue, refusing at all odds to let go. We all grew in complexity, multiplied rapidly, and turned into the extraordinary human beings we exist as now.
The problem with that same willful primitive survival mechanism in cancer cells is that damaged cells function in a way whereby they no longer act in accordance with the overall health of their host. Some theories suggest that in its outset, a tumour itself a survival mechanism for the entire organism, a “last resort” in a body that is, for whatever reason, trying to manage its toxicity. The tumour feeds off the surplus of glucose in the blood in a body that is secreting for its fight or flight response to stress. It acts as block to further toxicity building up in the already stressed individual.
Whether that theory holds or not, after a certain point, cancer seems to live purely for its own survival and reproduction, no longer with the survival of its host at the heart of its existence. In that sense, cancer acts a bit like a corporation. A business may begin with intent to serve the needs of its community. With increased production and unheeded growth, a business may lose its initial intention. Like the corporations’ reckless polluting of rivers for profit, cancer, functioning in a low-oxygen environment contributes to the acidity in the body. Just as corporations manipulate the earth’s resources for their own purposes, cancer cells create their own blood supply. Both cancer and corporations if left unchecked grow irresponsibly, crowding out the body or earth’s healthy tissue at the demise of their hosts. Furthermore, when healthy cells send messages to the cancer cells to quit, much like when citizens tell corporations to end their greedy ways, neither cancer nor corporations abide. Like an empire building in far corners of the earth for its own impulsive gain, a cancer creates a barrier to disguise itself from the natural killer and white blood cells. Sneaky little devils.
It might surprise you to learn that you probably have cancer cells right now. Fortunately, for most of us, our bodies eliminate cancer cells before they get out of whack. Unfortunately, for one out of three of us, enough pre-disposing factors will interfere with the body’s cellular activity enough for damaged cells to multiply. As the world gets increasingly toxic, as water quality diminishes, as industrial farming methods compromise our food supplies, as stress and depression mount, so do the pre-disposing factors that contribute to cancer.
So what caused my cancer? A whole host of things, a multitude of processes, far too many things to include here, perhaps far too many for me to completely grasp. To look at the toxins in my body would simply be to look at one side of the prism – the physical body is one layer, in my view, of my whole self. It’s a hologram; some might say, of a higher source, filtered through the lenses of my psychological, emotional and spiritual life – or perhaps a whole network of lives, past and present. Somewhere along the way something got out of balance.
At the cellular level, some say it may have been the DNA residing in the flat disc of the nuclei. A missing gene passed on from my mother may have caused my body to miss the mark, turn a blind eye to the cancer cells in my breast. In this sense, I inherited the imbalance; my damage is ancestral. For 92% of cancers however, it isn’t the DNA at all. Less than 10% of cancers have been linked to genetics.
If we broke down all parts of the cell, we could probably find that each part of it plays its role in suppressing or contributing to cancer. For example, if the cell membrane is compromised in structure because of a lack of fatty acids or a missing protein, cells can no longer communicate effectively with one another. It’s like the internet going down when groups of people depend on it for sharing information for their livelihood. Havoc ensues. Without communication, cells lose their sense of vital interdependence. Damaged cells can’t hear the message to abort ship.
Another key component in the cell is the mitochondria. Some consider the mitochondria our evolutionary blessing. Our primitive ancestors functioned entirely anaerobically, but the mitochondria allowed cells to get out of the water and breathe. Mitochondria are key to most of our energy production. They may relate to cell signaling, control of cell growth, cell differentiation, and cell death. All these functions profoundly affect the suppression or reproduction of cancer.
I am tempted write a book about cells, perhaps a series of poems. They are magnificent.
But to keep this post within blog-savvy word count, I’ll spare you the poetry for now. In the next few posts, I’ll delve into other fascinations of cellular function, share with reverence a little more of the mystery of what keeps us all going, and what unfortunately, in the case of cancer, threatens our demise. I’ll be looking at cells in part from a physical, biological point of view, but I am interested in the connection between mind and body, or rather the witnessing that they are the same. What we believe to make up our “mind” – our thoughts, emotions, memories, and habits – profoundly influences the lives of our cells. How we nourish ourselves physically – which minerals, proteins and vitamins we enrich or deprive our systems with – can certainly influences how we think and feel. I’d like to investigate this more deeply in these posts, and share with you the multidimensional acts of cells all in the light of understanding cancer just a little bit more.
With this in mind, and in body, it may help as a primer to understanding the science and rationale behind integrative cancer therapy.