Why don't we all have cancer

It was in 1902 when the German biologist Theodor Boveri had a brilliant idea. Cancer could be based on something wrong with the genetic material, the chromosomes. If they are not evenly distributed to the daughter cells during cell division, this could lead to the unleashed and destructive growth of a daughter cell, speculated the Würzburg researcher. So to cancer.

Boveri's acceptance met with little approval. Understandable, since at that time hardly anything was known about the inner workings of a cell. But the scientist's intuition turned out to be correct decades later. For all we know today, cancer occurs in a single cell. The cause is genetic changes in the chromosomes, which lead to the degenerate cell dividing more and more. The cluster of cells turns into a tumor that spreads settlements into other organs.

After the human genome, its genome, had been completely deciphered, researchers in the last ten years pounced on the cancer genome. They discovered a myriad of genetic changes, mutations, and many scientists hope that this detailed knowledge will open up new treatment options. In contrast, the dangers that can lead to cancer have long been known.

For example the lifestyle (smoking, too much alcohol, too much fatty food, too much red meat), dangers from the environment (radiation, pollutants, but also biological causes such as viruses or mold toxins) and finally influences that we cannot change, for example inherited risk, gender and finally age as perhaps the most important factor. You can reduce your risk of cancer, but you can't get rid of it.

Nevertheless, the origin of cancer is still a mystery, its sudden appearance out of the blue seems as fateful as it is life-threatening. It is understandable that legends and speculations are no longer circulating about illness - and unfortunately also dubious promises of salvation. Below we introduce some myths and legends about a still sinister (and often incurable) disease.


The number of cases is actually growing. In the Federal Republic of Germany almost half a million people fall ill with the disease every year. But the increase has above all to do with the fact that Germans are getting older - age is the most important risk factor for cancer. The mean age of onset is 68 for women and 69 for men. To put it bluntly: people are getting so old that they can still experience their cancer. More cancer is to be expected and not a sign of civilizational decline. Doctors already registered tumors in ancient Egypt. The name "cancer" is derived from the observation by Greek doctors that the extensions of tumors under the skin can resemble the legs of crabs.

The chances of recovery have improved significantly over the past few decades. Before 1980, according to the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, more than two thirds of the patients died of their cancer. Today a permanent cure is possible in more than half of the cases.


Why me? What I have done wrong? Many cancer sufferers ask this question and often look for the cause - and the blame - in themselves. Could it be that emotional stress weakens the immune system and thus allows a tumor to grow? It is true that stress often leads to risky lifestyles such as smoking, too much alcohol and poor nutrition. But stress alone is no more a cause of cancer than mental exhaustion, grief or depression.

There is no such thing as a “cancer personality” that eats everything into itself and is filled with negative thoughts, just as there is no mental “wellness formula” with which we can shield ourselves against the tumor. Cancer expert Jimmie Holland from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York warns of a "tyranny of positive thinking". Your rule of thumb for people with cancer: "Don't think that you have to be in a good mood all the time and that depression and worry will shorten your life."

Happy people get more out of life, but there is no evidence that they develop cancer less often than unhappy people. There is also little evidence to suggest that a positive outlook on life in itself improves the chances of survival. However, it can promote a healthy lifestyle.


The influence of environmental pollutants on the tumor risk does indeed exist, but is often overestimated.

In principle, cancer has three causes: disposition, environment - and bad luck. While the latter does not appear in scientific assessments, the environment is the main culprit with 90 percent. However, researchers and lay audiences understand this to mean something different. For science, the term “environment” is broadly defined, including diet, smoking, sexuality, viruses, sunlight, cosmic radiation, in short everything that is not inherited but affects the risk of cancer. The layman, on the other hand, associates fine dust, pesticides or other sources of danger in modern civilization with “the environment”.

However, the contribution of environmental pollutants to the risk of cancer is lower than expected. According to a 1981 study by Oxford epidemiologists Richard Doll and Richard Peto (largely confirmed 25 years later), the three biggest risk factors are smoking (33 percent), diet (30 percent, including obesity and inactivity) and infection (18 percent) . Pollution, industrial products and food additives are each way below one percent. The risk is slightly greater when people work with carcinogenic substances, the best-known example of which is the risk of lung cancer and breast skin tumors (mesotheliomas) for asbestos workers. The basic law of all poisons also applies here: the dose is decisive. It is not “if” that counts, but “how much”.

However, risks also need to be reassessed. The World Health Organization announced in October that air pollution is the cause of lung cancer and kills around 220,000 people each year, mostly in China and other East Asian countries where smog is prevalent. On the other hand, experts see little cause for concern in the case of microwave ovens, photocopiers, Teflon pans and cell phones. The latter are dangerous not because of their radiation, but because they distract drivers. According to the organization "Cancer Research UK", the risk from high-voltage lines is extremely low.

Accumulations of cancer cases in certain regions are often talked about, but these “clusters” are mostly statistical illusions, products of chance. According to experts, this also applies to the most famous cluster, cancer clusters in a small Californian town, which were attributed to a chromium compound in drinking water. The 2000 film "Erin Brockovich", in which Julia Roberts played the environmental activist Brockovich, made the alleged scandal known worldwide.


Sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame are long-running among the supposed dangers. But they do not increase the risk of cancer, is the assessment of "Cancer Research UK". The same applies to plastic bottles and preservatives such as sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, says the Australian Cancer Council. But fake lists of alleged carcinogenic additives are circulating on the Internet, warns the cancer information service. Pesticides are not dangerous in the small amounts they can be found on fruit and vegetables - but washing them off does no harm. It is not clear whether the acrylamide produced by baking, roasting and roasting increases the risk of tumors.

Cosmetics are also under suspicion. But neither deodorants, lipsticks, hair dyes, tattoos nor bras made it onto the list of serious cancer risks.


In the 1970s, American researchers Henry Brem and Judah Folkman of Harvard University discovered that cartilage suppressed the sprouting of blood vessels. A tumor's own blood vessels are essential for it to grow. Cartilage could therefore contain an anti-cancer recipe - a factor that inhibits the growth of blood vessels and thus that of tumors.

Sharks have a skeleton that is made entirely of cartilage, and cancer is fairly rare. At least that was the state of knowledge around 20 years ago, when the US nutritionist William Lane apparently added one and one in his book "Sharks Don't Get Cancer" and declared shark cartilage to be the new cancer therapy. The hunt for sharks was on. Lane began trading in shark cartilage pills too. The consequences were devastating. In many places, the shark populations shrank dramatically. Not only, but also because of the supposedly beneficial cartilage.

It is now clear that Lane and his followers were mistaken. Shark cartilage was found to be completely ineffective in treating cancer. All alleged cures are not only not proven, they are refuted, writes the magazine "Scientific American". It also turned out that sharks get cancer too. Tumors can even be found in shark cartilage. Anything else would also be a huge surprise. Cancer is a mortgage with which more highly developed living beings must exist. Of course, among the billions of cells that make up an organism, there are always those that ignore all growth barriers and proliferate at the expense of the body.


Eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of cancer. However, it is difficult or even impossible to fight or heal a tumor that has already broken out with a special diet. This is because cancer cells are agile in terms of their ability to use certain components of food, such as carbohydrates or fats. Nevertheless, there are a number of forms of "cancer diets" around. They often work with bans on certain allegedly toxic foods such as pork or coffee or with radical dietary changes and sometimes dangerous fasting cures. "None of the cancer diets that are often propagated in magazines or guidebooks have a proven healing effect," says the Cancer Information Service.

Ulrich Keilholz has stated that the focus at the moment is on the fight against sugar. “Many patients want to starve their cancer to death,” says the head of the cancer center at Berlin's Charité. "But with this sugar deprivation you can put yourself in danger." It is true that some types of cancer "burn" a particularly large amount of sugar obtained from carbohydrates. The drug is to be withdrawn from the "sugar addicted" tumor. However, it is doubtful whether this will work in practice. The low-carbohydrate "ketogenic" diet is promoted in the media, but it has not been scientifically proven in cancer treatment and has side effects. Especially since another organ urgently needs sugar: the brain.


There are more than 200 different forms of cancer, including incurable, easily treatable, and even largely harmless; every organ and every type of tissue can be fundamentally affected; every stage means a different form of threat. The “conventional medical” treatment is correspondingly different. One drug will never be able to fight all tumors. Not so with the panaceas that are touted by healers. They are often the last straw for the sick. But the result is sobering. Vitamin cures, herbal extracts, Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, magnetic therapy, homeopathy, amygdalin ("Vitamin B 17") and other alternative medical methods with extensive claims have provided no or no convincing evidence of their effectiveness in cancer treatment, report organizations such as Cancer Research UK ".

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