Saturday, 6 June 2015

Cancer is not a disease - it is a process, not a thing

I get the impression that many people are terribly confused about what cancer is - or rather they are just plain wrong about what cancer is. In particular they think of it as a disease category.

This is - of course - inculcated and exploited by medical researchers, the mass media, celebrities and the massive cancer charities (e.g. Cancer Research UK is a deeply dishonest and exploitative bureaucracy - and a fund of self-serving disinformation on many matters).


People assume that cancer is like pneumonia - ie. a group of lung diseases; but cancer is like 'infection' or 'inflammation' - cancer is a pathological process.

So it is misleading to talk about 'fighting' cancer or 'eradicating' cancer as if it was a disease - as in the Cancer Research UK slogan: 'We will beat cancer sooner'.

Do we fight, eradicate or 'beat' processes such as infection or inflammation? There are general and often effective 'infection control' mechanisms (quarantine, hygiene etc.), there are general anti-inflammatory drugs (steroids, NSAIDs) but this activity does not generate the strident, militaristic nonsense that is usual with cancer talk.

Infection is part of the condition of life on earth; so is cancer. Cancer is not going-away.


In general, people suffer diseases - as a man might suffer from pneumonia. But people afflicted with various diseases resulting from the cancer process are described as 'victims', they are said to be 'fighting' cancer. If they die, they have lost their long 'struggle' with cancer.

These are all fake and misleading metaphors, which cloak exploitation and ignorance.

In reality Cancer research, as such, is about the biology of a pathological process - which is as large, vague, complex and obscure - as as remote from curing disease or helping sick people - as research about the biology of 'infections' or the incredible intricacies of the immune system would be.


Cancer is not one thing, nor is cancer many things - cancer is not a thing.

The word cancer describes - in general terms - a pathological process, a disease process, something which has gone wrong with certain aspects of the functioning of an organism.

To say what cancer is involves technical terms and uncommon knowledge, to understand what cancer is requires effort, a willingness to learn - to concentrate and read (or listen) for quite a few minutes at a stretch. The understanding must be built-up.

Most people won't do this, some people can't do this - hence very few people indeed have any idea what cancer is - or rather, they have an idea so false and misleading that it misunderstands the very nature of cancer.

This depth and level of misunderstanding of cancer is, I guess, is what has created a situation so wide-open to exploitation - and, by Heavens, it surely has been exploited!



Ingemar said...

First point: I don't agree with your thesis. I'll leave aside the potentially troubling issue of ontology (mainly because ontology is not my area of expertise) but your post begs the question that processes can't be diseases. You also contradict yourself in that you say "cancer is not a disease" then you say "cancer is a disease process."

Second: I get that cancer research is a gigantic scam. ISTM that the only way to get biology research funded at the university level is to relate it to cancer somehow, no matter how remote the relationship between the research and cancer is. Cancer research is like the business consultant's dream come true--an unsolvable problem that no one will stop trying to solve that also has infinite price elasticity.

What would happen if cancer research shifted towards boring ol' prevention instead of finding smaller steps in signalling pathways and drug discovery and whatnot? Millions would be out of a job.

Bruce Charlton said...

@I - I don't regard this as a thesis - I'm merely pointing out the fact of the matter!

Thordaddy said...

I conceptualize "cancer" as exponential growth which in turn describes the driving ethos of the Western economic man and his subsequent impending annihilation. There is something quite delivish about these two countervailing phenomena simultaneously held in mind by the same people without any sense of personal cognitive dissonance.

John Goes said...

Bruce, your post leads to the natural follow-up question: where can we "concentrate and listen for quite a few minutes" to learn exactly what cancer is?

I don't completely understand your distinction between pathological process and disease. In this post ( you refer to cancers as a disease. Have you changed your mind, or are you reverting to some more traditional understanding of what disease is? I would like to understand the distinction.

John Goes said...

To be more precise, you said in the previous post that kinds of cancer are a disease. I did not mean to suggest that you previously viewed cancer as a unified disease.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JG - You can read any source describing the nature of cancer - but just bear in mind that it is a process like inflammation, not a disease like pneumonia.

I haven't changed my mind about this - I knew/realized it as a second year medical student.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JG - I'm sorry I can't give you a crash course in the comments! There are vast online resources if you want to go into this, but you will need to set aside some time to learn a fair bit of new material in the process.