Cancer Biologists Can’t Solve Cancer by Themselves

The Problem Behind the Problem

CancerBiologyCancer biologists cannot solve the cancer problem by themselves, nor can anyone else for that matter.  I’m a cancer biologist, so what do I mean when I say this?  Allow me to explain.  I’m not talking about understanding the staggering complexity of cancer, which requires many researchers ranging from engineers to physicians.  That’s another topic, for another (many other) article. What I want to talk about here is a higher order complexity at the societal level that prevents people from having access to cancer treatment, or to something as basic as a preventive measure.

The fact of the matter is, no matter how good our cancer treatments or preventive knowledge become, if people don’t have access to them or cannot implement them, then their effectiveness is not applicable.  This is why advocates in the fields of public health and social welfare are so important.  Simply teaching people in third world countries to wash their hands regularly can have a tremendous impact on decreasing mortality.  Washing hands isn’t “rocket science”—it’s “people science”; and, it’s quite effective against the spread of germs. While hand washing doesn’t prevent cancer, it’s a great example of how public health information can go a long way in dealing with healthcare issues.

Case Study: Effective Pesticides, More Crops, More Cancer

The plight of migrant farm workers is a great example of the societal complexity that is beyond the prowess of cancer biology.  Migrant farm workers are exposed to chemical pesticides at doses that cause cancer, among other ailments.  Let’s take a step back and look at the web of problems beyond what can be seen through the lens of a microscope.  In addition to the cancer problem, there is the public health issue of widespread chemical exposure, the lack of legal representation required get compensation and to secure future prevention, and the lack of access to health care, let alone the inability to afford health care. Thus, the problem is actually much bigger than just cancer. Having more effective chemotherapies only addresses one issue in this web.

Seeing the Whole Elephant, Not Just It’s Parts

During graduate school, I attended a commencement ceremony for graduate students from a biology department.  The commencement speaker was a biochemist whose career had spanned many decades, which gave him a front row seat to the intellectual explosion that occurred in the past 60 years of molecular biology.  Speaking to the dozens of graduate students on stage whom were about to be awarded their degrees, he gave them a charge.  He reflected upon the ways in which his generation had solved many societal problems, but acknowledged that in the wake of their success, they created new ones.  “This is why we need you,” he said, “to solve the problems that we have created.”

Indeed, this charge will remain true for any future generation. Science has produced many materials and chemicals for the purposes of human flourishing—with no sign of letting up—but these inventions can negatively impact human health in unintended ways.   As always, disadvantaged populations are the most vulnerable to these negative effects.  As people who are privileged with adequate information, it falls upon us to ensure that others are protected. It’s not just about inventing better treatments, which is part of the answer.  It’s about making sure that people are treated humanely, which can be done regardless of whether or not treatments improve.

Photo Credit: Wisconsin University

Mesothelioma: Understanding the Effects on Health


Seattle Demolition and Construction
Seattle Demolition and Construction

Mesothelioma is a highly dangerous and rare form of cancer that is typically caused by asbestos exposure. Because of this, it is vital for people to be aware of the risk that they are taking if they frequent or work in a building that is old enough to still have asbestos insulation. Additionally, people such as mechanics who work with automobiles are still at risk because several countries outside of the U.S. use asbestos as one of the materials in their parts.

What are the Symptoms?

Sadly, most people who have mesothelioma will not receive the proper diagnosis until it is too late to save their life. However, getting immediate medical attention as soon as you begin exhibiting symptoms is one of the best ways to increase your odds of surviving. The most common symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, night sweats, decreased appetite and weight loss. Some patients will also experience vocal changes and issues with their diaphragm.

How is it Contracted?

Research indicates that being exposed to asbestos for as little as one month can lead to a mesothelioma diagnosis several decades later. Unfortunately, asbestos disease has an extremely long latency period, and this means that it can take up to 70 years for you to learn that you are suffering from this medical condition. Patients who begin experiencing the symptoms of mesothelioma will need to undergo a biopsy in order to get a conclusive diagnosis.

What is the Most Common Prognosis?

As previously mentioned, most people are unaware that they have mesothelioma until it is too late. In these cases, the average life expectancy is one year. However, there are various treatment techniques that can be utilized depending on the stage of the disease that the patient has. The most common treatments include radiation therapy, surgery and chemotherapy.

What are My Legal Options?

If you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, you have the legal right to file a lawsuit against any companies or manufacturers that were involved in your asbestos exposure. For example, if you work for a construction company and dealt with asbestos on a regular basis, you can sue that company and the manufacturer of the asbestos insulation that you came into contact with. In fact, many asbestos manufacturers have a remediation account set aside to deal with this issue.

However, it will still be very important to contact an experienced mesothelioma attorney to help you build your case. After all, it can be very difficult to prove that the disease is linked to a job that you had several decades ago. Fortunately, a lawyer who was dealt with other mesothelioma cases will have the necessary knowledge to help you move forward with a viable lawsuit. Even if you have an inoperable version of mesothelioma, you should still consider taking legal action so that your family’s financial needs will be taken care of.

Keep in mind that asbestos could be present in any old home or office building that you enter. This problem is especially prevalent in New York City, so it is a good idea to do some research before you unwittingly put yourself at risk for developing mesothelioma later in life.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Hollywood Celebrity Angelina Jolie Discloses Double Mastectomy

Angelina Jolie

Mega star actress, Angelina Jolie,  sent shock waves through the media when her op-ed disclosing a double mastectomy was published in the New York Times on May 14, 2013. Jolie discusses how her family history and the loss of her mother to cancer played a huge role in her taking preventative measures to increase the odds of longevity for her children.

The opinion pieces also acknowledges how this life extending preventive measure was an option afforded to her only because of her financial means. Angelina’s disclosure brings to light the health care disparities many low income and uninsured women face in obtaining treatment and preventative care.

She also discloses the financial cost of the testing necessary to determine if she was at risk. The test itself was $3,000 which does not include the actual cost for the double mastectomy procedure and the reconstructive surgery. Many advocates for cancer screening and early education feel Angelina Jolie’s opinion piece will help efforts to educate young women on cancer risks and the importance of preventive care.

According to the New York Times, Angelina Jolie stated,

MY MOTHER fought cancer for almost a decade and died at 56. She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was.

We often speak of “Mommy’s mommy,” and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a “faulty” gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer andovarian cancer.

My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.

Only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation. Those with a defect in BRCA1 have a 65 percent risk of getting it, on average.

Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex. Read Full Article

For information on treatment and preventative care covered by Medicaid and Medicare, you can visit . The American Cancer Society is also an excellent resource to gain insight and access to information on cancer statistics, treatment, and preventative care. Below, you can view and download the latest cancer statistics.

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