Why Don’t We Get More Cancer?

Posted on Feb 5, 2017 in Research

A cancer diagnosis is shocking and devastating. Many of my patients reasonably ask why this illness happened to them, especially after years of excellent health and good self-care.

As a physician, I wish that no one got cancer. Sadly, 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get cancer in their lifetime. As a scientist, though, I’m actually surprised that we don’t all get MORE cancer. Sounds strange, right?

Here’s the thing: if we take the dominant theory of cancer literally, then we should all have cancer. We’re all exposed to daily doses of carcinogens from air pollution, plastics, grilled meat, fueling our cars, etc. As we age, our telomeres shorten and cells grow more fragile. And yet, many of us don’t get cancer. Why, and what does this tell us about how we can prevent and treat cancer?

Dr Mina Bissell of Lawrence Berkeley Labs had the courage to ask this question. She discovered the role of a cell’s environment — the extracellular matrix — in regulating the behaviour of cancer cells.

Perhaps a bit like troubled kids that out out in adequate foster homes and then flourish in a loving family, cancer cells can return to normal shape an behavior is they are transplanted into a healthy extracellular matrix. Mind-blowing, huh?

If you’d like to know more, I highly recommend Dr Bissell’s TED Talk. Dr Bissell is the keynote speaker at the oncology conference that I’m attending next week. This conference focuses on the tumor microenvironment. I can’t wait to meet Dr Bissell, and to bring back to you more information on how to create a body that cancer doesn’t like.

Yours in good health,

Dr Katherine Neubauer