OK!!…. I know the title is a bit corny, and misleading, but hopefully it got your attention. I could have called it Why Did I Get Cancer?…… It’s something I have thought a lot about in the last 12 years. At the very beginning, I was terrified,…… in a state of panic,…… and very down,…… I thought I was the unluckiest person in the world and that somehow God was out to get me. I used to joke that there was a great big arrow pointing out of the sky at me that said “all s**t this way please”. I told this to a therapist once and she was not impressed,…… she wanted me to delve into what was making me feel this way. I wanted to shout at her,….. or throw a book, curse,….. and “ask are you stupid” ?……”do I have to spell it out for you”, of course that’s exactly what she wanted; but it was for me, to spell it out for myself,….. so I would understand……. It would take me many more years before I realised that was what was going on in that session.
Of course I wasn’t the unluckiest person in the world,…… I just looked and in 2012 there were 14 million new cases worldwide of cancer with 8.8 million deaths globally in 2015…… that’s 1 in 6 people on the planet…… according to the World Health Organization. In the last two years since I had my reoccurrence, I have gotten to know many other patients through online patient forums, we are all statistics on some chart somewhere but behind the stats we all have our own stories,…… our families……. and our daily struggles……. Since the new year I can count at least five online friends who have sadly passed away from melanoma,……. and I have more who now find themselves in a very precarious situation.
We all live our lives as normally as we possibly can, but just as you adjust to a new normal something else can go wrong,…… and you go up another rung on the ladder of danger. Rapidly progressing tumours……. growing out of control and brain metastasis…… are the things we live in fear of……. I was incredibly lucky again this week to be given the good news that the remaining tumour I have is stable, and now so small it is difficult to measure, I hope it stays that way forever and ever…… but that would be in the minority as melanoma is in the top three cancers to metastasize to the brain which is then the leading cause of death, that’s not to say that patients don’t survive if it happens…… but you jump up the ladder, when it does happen.
I have long gotten away from the idea of being unlucky, in fact I find myself in the company of some of the most amazing resilient friends I have ever had the pleasure to know,…… some I have met in person and some I will most probably never meet…… but I will always class them as my friends regardless of that. We chat daily and share information, when the S**t hits the fan we are there for each-other, we get it!!…… I have to say it’s not a club any of us want to be a part of and we often joke that we wish we had never met,……. but we are in now,….. for better and for worse.
But why are we here, what’s the reason?…… If your reading this and are someone who doesn’t have cancer why is it me,…… and not you. Not that I would want it to be anyone else, not even my worst enemy. But what makes us different,……the truth is we all know it can happen to any of us,…… but what exactly causes us to get it?
I like to keep myself busy, now I’m in early retirement. You might see the dog taking me for a walk or sometimes I escape without him,…..his overactive bladder is like being on a continuous stop go system. I like to read,….. chat to friends on-line,…… very occasionally I might plug-in the Hoover and remember what I planned to do with it before getting distracted,…… I write this blog which actually takes a lot longer than you’d imagine,…… I’m doing a sewing course in the hope of finally making a roman blind ( I like to bite off more than I can chew)…… I go to my local cancer center to do classes like yoga, Pilates, mindfulness these are the things I do to keep myself distracted…… and out of a mental black hole. I also like to keep myself as up to date as possible about all things melanoma related……. so I recently joined a group called Statistics for Citizens (sounds fun) so I can understand medical presentations, ……and also an excellent course online by Futurelearn called Demystifying Targeted Cancer Treatments,…… and from doing this course I have begun to Unzip my Genes, ……and why I got cancer…… or not me specifically but why any of us can get it.
For a very basic understanding, we need to start with each of our cells,…… on the outside is the cell wall\membrane that gives shape, inside that we have cytoplasm that has all sorts of important things like filaments, proteins mitochondria floating about and each cell also contains a nucleus……. We all learnt this in school if we were listening and not doodling in the back of our book possibly about loving Larry Mullen from U2 if I remember in my case.
This is every cell in our bodies and they are all communicating with each other constantly,chattering away like me with friends on Facebook,…… sending out messages but they are also constantly making copies of themselves and then the old one dying off in a very natural process……. The nucleus is the control center of each cell…… and within the nucelus of our cells be it hair, nail, blood, tissue are 23 sets of chromosomes which are inherited from our parents they are basically what makes us,….. be us,…… and so fabulous!!…… These chromosomes look like two chicken wishbones joined end to end together and contain our DNA,…… we have all seen a picture of the ladder like structures that twists around each other in whats called a double helix…… The DNA that forms the ladder is tightly folded and is approx 2 meters in length if you unravel it,…… this DNA is like a ticker tape code and is the master copy to who each one of us is…… and makes us all individuals based on which way it is formed. The ladder is also divided into sub sections that give instructions for specific functions in our formation,…… these sections are called Genes…… and are often given numeric/alphabetical names like CDK21 or CDKn2a that we can’t possibly remember and I always mix up the few I think I do know……. Hope your still with me!!
As I mentioned cells are constantly duplicating themselves as part of this process something called Transcription takes place…… the ladder of DNA is surrounded by enzymes……. and like a zipper is split apart,…… while its being split it’s also being copied, before it closes back up…… (this is happening constantly all over your body, it’s amazing!!),…..this copy then floats out of the cell nucleus and travels out to the cytoplasm between the nucelus and the cell wall……. out there is a sort of factory working 24/7 which processes this new strand that’s now called mRNA……. because it is a copy or your original DNA,…… this part is called Translation ( I hope you’re not lost in Translation by now)…… and it is where the mRNA is converted into amino acids and proteins,…….which have hugely important jobs, in our survival,…… I won’t go into or you will be here forever, Google for more info,……or do an online course if you want to learn more about them,……. there’s also loads of cool videos on U tube of them in action.
This is just the first part of the cycle of cell division, but it is a very important phase, in understanding Cancer, and why we get it….. If we can go back a step to the tickertape\ladder……. this is our human Genome code……. and our master instruction of who we are,…….now as with any instructions they need to be in sequence……. and correct for the end product to turn out like it’s supposed to…… and function the way it was designed too,……. but as with all things human we have our faults,……. none of us are perfect,……. but not all faults in our Genome cause us problems,…… but there are certain factors that can affect this crucial DNA sequence,……. we hear warnings about them constantly in the media,……. they are called carcinogens,……and include smoking, asbestos, sun exposure, sunbeds, diet\exercise, radon gas, the list is ever-changing,…… these are outside factors…….. We can also have an inherited factor contained in our genes that we got from our parents…… and potentially pass on to our own children,……. we can be tested for these if there is a strong history of cancer in the family,…… to see if its cause is genetic. If it is we can take steps such as regular screening……. or in the case of Angelina Jolie a mastectomy to reduce her risk……. of a genetic breast cancer.
What these carcinogens do is alter the sequence of our DNA code…… so when it is copied it is slightly changed or contains what is called a mutation, this change\mutation in our master instruction causes our cells to act differently, (the one I have is called the Braf mutation and is found in 50% of melanomas) the cells begin to grow out of control and instead of dying off in the natural order they should, they begin to divide too quickly, clump together and form a lump, or lesion on our skin, often starting in a mole (but not always), in the case of a melanoma, as it begins when something gets altered in the melanocytes, the skin cells.
But this can begin anywhere in our body and while it might seem quiet random to us and our family when we get cancer, it isn’t really, it is a process that gets altered because of something triggering a change in our code, and can happen anyone, from babies to grandparents and the older we get our risk also increases as the more our code is copied the greater chance of a mutation…….. If it begins in our skin it is skin cancer or the more aggressive melanoma…… if it’s in our lungs it is lung cancer…… all of these cancers have things that are similar but also many differences within the cells and this is why cancer is not just one disease but an umbrella name for many different diseases that begin anywhere within the body, and it’s why when people talk about a cure for cancer its misleading………yes there are treatments that are used for different types but there is no one cure for all different cancers……. and its unlikely there will ever be one cure-all solution…… but more likely a set of treatments that are used in different combinations depending on which cancer you have,they have made huge progress on this in the last decade tailoring treatments to target specific mutations I actually take one of these new targeted treatments and its been very successful for me, but it hasn’t unfortunately worked for many of my friends,…… Why?…. that’s a question they are working tirelessly to solve in labs all over the world and I am confident they will find a solution they are close but every time one question gets answered in Cancer it seems to throw out many, more to keep us working at it.
One thing that often confuses people is if its melanoma, or for example say kidney cancer, and it’s in your lungs or your liver or bones why is it still called melanoma or kidney cancer…… and not lung, liver or bone cancer……. The reason is a cancer, is named after the place it began, that is where you found the primary tumour,….. but cancer is clever and the tumour even though it had been removed and treatment given, might begin to regrow but this time in a different location to the primary,……. it has traveled there in your blood or lymph which is our drainage system, sometimes you might get lucky and it’s picked up early because a lymph node becomes swollen (that’s why its important to check them once a month even if you have never had cancer)……. but sometimes it ends up in an organ far from where it originally started but it is still for example melanoma cells or kidney cancer cells……. even though they are now in different organs, this is called metastasis,……. and when this happens depending on how many organs have been affected it becomes much more difficult to treat successfully. A biopsy or sample of the tumour will be taken and it will be examined to see which type of cancer it is……. as even though if its in say the liver, it might not be liver cancer, this needs to be done as there are different treatments for different cancers and you can’t start treatment until they know what they are needing to target.
As you can see it’s a very complex problem…… and there will never be a one treatment fixes all solution,(especially not baking soda, lemon juice, apricot kernels, ketogenic diets and other such nonsense)……. as there are so many different types that all behave similar but also have differences in behaviour. It’s like us no two people are alike,…….. and our cancer even though me and my friends all have melanoma are also different and will all have different outcomes to treatment. So when you are reading scary statistics about survival chances you need to remember THAT……. they don’t tell what your outcome will be. Some may progress quickly have very little time,….. and others respond to treatment live longer and then die,….. some will be cured,…. some might never be truly cancer free but remain stable….. No one can tell which category you will fall into when your diagnosed and that makes it very scary….. and also very difficult to live with it. It’s a major cause of our anxiety and our fears.
Now that I understand more about what causes, cancer I’m not so afraid of it, or to talk about it,…… I’m just scared of what it can potentially do to me,….. and my friends and their families……The most painful experience in life is to lose someone you love,…… and cancer removes them from your life in the cruelest fashions, it can be sudden,….. or a long drawn out process causing distress to the patient and their loved ones…… I know it’s part of me like all the other bits of me albeit a nasty sneaky part I could well do without, and would be very glad to be rid of but I also know even though mine was caused by sunburn when I was a child and possibly that banjaxed looking sunbed I hired to give me a tan for my wedding, I don’t feel that big arrow pointing at me anymore….. because this could happen to you,…. you….. and you….. who ever is reading this. Maybe I was unlucky, but so are 14 million other people each year, so I’m definitely not alone, and as we gain more knowledge on things that cause cancer we can make changes to lessen our chances of getting it,…… or we can choose to ignore them and take our chances,…… as someone said to me as they went outside to have a cigarette lately at the pub ” you have to die of something”,……. I didn’t respond because that’s their gamble to take on the roulette wheel of life!!!