With World Cancer Day just around the corner (4 February), now is an appropriate opportunity to consider what we know about this disease, and more importantly yet, what we can do about it. There is a variable depth of knowledge surrounding this disease and with the wealth of misleading and imprecise information available nowadays it may be helpful to quickly reconsider a basic conceptual understanding of what exactly cancer is.
What is commonly misconstrued as an invasive and erosive disease, simply, cancer is just a collection of uncontrollable dividing cells. All it takes for normal human tissue to became cancerous, is the slightest of mutations in the DNA segments that promote cell growth and division (oncogenes), or, the DNA that restricts cell division and repairs mistakes in DNA (tumour suppressor genes). Too much cell growth (dysfunctional oncogenes) or too little control of cell growth (dysfunctional tumour suppressor cells) results in tissue that just grows too much. This can happen to almost every tissue in the human body including skin, muscle, bone, lung, and even blood. Cancer isn’t some complicated and mysterious phenomenon; it is merely irregular human tissue that won’t stop growing. Unfortunately for us, the human body does not accommodate extra growth tremendously well.
That of course leaves the question: “What causes these mutations in the DNA?” There are some well-established sources, some of which are outside our control. For instance, the genetic lottery that takes place during conception that may result in mutation susceptible DNA as in breast and ovarian cancer (BRCA1 and BRCA2). Other triggers, such as too much sunlight, radiation exposure, and smoking, are significantly more manageable. Perhaps the most well-established cause of cancerous genetic mutation is smoking, which has been implicated in increased risk of developing cancer in 16 different types of tissue.
With cigarette smoking causing 80% of all lung cancer (4th highest cause of death in Australia), as well as greatly increasing the risk of developing coronary heart disease (leading cause of death in Australia) and cerebrovascular disease (3rd highest cause of death in Australia), it is the single most preventable cause of premature death in the country. With the link between smoking and cancer first reported in 1939 by Franz Hermann Müller, it begs the question of “Why does the deadliest artifact in the history of human civilisation still claim so many lives?”
Among the many answers to that potentially impervious question is the addictive nature of nicotine and the influence of human habit. It is no secret that quitting is a sometimes difficult and seemingly insurmountable task, but fortunately there are a host of behavioural and pharmacotherapy interventions for tobacco smoking cessation.
Hypnosis is the most effective way of giving up smoking, according to the largest ever scientific comparison of ways of breaking the habit. A meta-analysis, statistically combining results of more than 600 studies of 72,000 people from America and Europe to compare various methods of quitting.
On average, hypnosis was over three times as effective as nicotine replacement methods and 15 times as effective as trying to quit alone.
– University of Iowa, Journal of Applied Psychology, How One in Five Give Up Smoking. October 1992
So this Cancer Day if you know someone that is struggling to break the habit and continues to smoke cigarettes, then show them some support and help them achieve the single best thing they can do for their health and quit smoking.
Image Source: AIHW National Mortality Database (Table S1).