Monday, March 23, 2015

Patricia Thomson: Even a Monster Needs a Name

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) is a proud supporter of Ken Burns presents "CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES", a film by Barak Goodman, a vivid account of how far we've come in the fight against cancer.  North Texas Executive Director Patricia Thomson, Ph.D., provides a preview of the three party mini-series to be shown on PBS later this month.

“'In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer.  In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime.  A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer.  In some nations, cancer will surpass heart disease to become the most common cause of death.'  - prelude to Author’s Note, Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Those are some sobering statistics and represent where we were five years ago.  Why is this so?  What can we do about it?  Let’s find out.  Welcome back to the second in a series of blogs on the book “The Emperor of all Maladies” by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee.  I hope you had a chance to read the first entry and that you are now intrigued enough to find out more. 

Have you ever wondered how did cancer get its name?  I am sure we are all familiar with the astrological sign of Cancer and the significance of the symbol of the crab.  But why is the crab associated with this terrible disease?  This is one of questions that the author wants to raise and he does very well.  He states dramatically:  'even an ancient monster needs a name.'   He goes on to describe:  “It was in the time of Hippocrates, around 400 BC, that a word for cancer first appeared in the medical literature: karkinos, from the Greek word for “crab”.  The tumor, with its clutch of swollen blood vessels around it, reminded Hippocrates of a crab dug in the sand with its legs spread in a circle.  The image was peculiar (few cancers truly resemble crabs), but also vivid.”  There is much discussion in the book related to this topic and how other scientists piggybacked on this initial observation and added their own interpretation.

How old is cancer?  I found this next discussion extremely interesting.  I have always thought of cancer as a more recent disease – maybe the result of all of the chemicals, additives and processed foods that we are exposed to and consume.  However this is not the case and Mukherjee covers this in great detail.  According to the author, an ancient papyrus was obtained by an Egyptologist that is believed to have been written in the seventeenth century BC.  It contains the teachings of Imhotep who was a great Egyptian physician who lived around 2625 BC.  In his writings of case #45 he describes the cancer as a 'distinct disease.'  His translated words:  'if you examine a case having bulging masses on the breast and you find that they have spread over his breast; if you place your hand upon the breast and find them to be cool, there being no fever at all therein when your hand feels him; they have no granulations, contain no fluid, give rise to no liquid discharge, yet they feel protuberant to your touch, …touching them is like touching a ball of wrappings, or they may be compared to the unripe hemat fruit, which is hard and cool to the touch.'  Another part of the papyrus records all of the other medical cases, such as burns and wounds, with thorough descriptions of treatments however with case #45, Imhotep writes under 'Therapy: “there is none.'  No further written description of cancer was found until 2000 years later in Greek records. 

Some of the earliest artifacts of cancer were discovered in a thousand-year-old gravesite in the southern tip of Peru among the mummified remains of the Chiribaya tribe and in Dakhleh Egypt from about 400 AD.  In these cases the actual preserved malignant calcified tissue was examined.  In other cases, signs left by the presence of tumors were found such as tiny holes in the bones.  The author states that if these cases do indeed represent malignancies, 'then cancer, far from being a “modern” disease, is one of the oldest diseases ever seen in a human specimen – quite possible the oldest.'

So now that we know how old cancer is and how it got its name, the next question is how has treatment evolved?  Is the current state of cancer treatment that much different than how humans treated it three hundred, two hundred and even 100 years ago?  I will talk more about this in my next blog entry.  Thanks for reading!


Save the Date:
The three day documentary will air on PBS from 9-11p on March 30th and 31st and April 1st.  We hope that you will tune in.  

LLS supporters will be pleased to find that a number of the major advancements made in the fight against blood cancers highlighted in this documentary came through the work of LLS-funded researchers.

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