Thursday, August 1, 2013

Three words you never want to hear

As a teenager I never would have guessed history could be so interesting. I've enjoyed a lot of books about events like the American Revolution and World War II, but was surprised at how interesting the history of a disease could be. Wars might affect a large group of people, but sickness and disease can affect almost anyone at any time. I've previously reviewed some histories about smallpox, tuberculosis, and the discovery of insulin as well as a couple that dealt with cancer, but the most recent was The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery (which I received from Amazon Vine).

Science-writer George Johnson and his wife heard three words that changed their lives – "you have cancer" – when she was diagnosed with a metastatic uterine form of the disease. As a result, Johnson embarked on a quest to learn everything he could about cancer and has written an interesting overview of what is known, which turns out to be less than you might hope. Cancer has been around a very long time, and evidence of it has even been found in dinosaur fossils. In fact, it has been with mankind as long as we've been here, but if it seems to be increasing more recently it's only because we're living longer. With some cruel exceptions, cancer is mostly a disease of older people but, beyond age, the only other reliable factors that can be said to cause cancer are smoking and obesity.

If you're looking for a positive, upbeat, "let's beat cancer!" kind of book, this probably isn't it. Johnson says that while we've made significant strides, our understanding of why it happens and how to treat it still has a long way to go. The never-ending parade of stories we see in the news reporting the latest "cancer-busting superfood" are usually taking results from research out of context. Often studies are flawed and inconclusive, and even conclusions that eating more fruits and vegetables will prevent cancer do not hold up under more rigorous testing. There is some positive correlation that exercise and maintaining a healthy body and diet helps, but the benefits are often small. And as he discusses the effects of drinking water tainted with chemical pollutants he illustrates very well why it is so difficult to prove causation. Even if a specific chemical or activity can be linked to a 30% increase in cancer (which sounds very dramatic), if your odds were only 1.2% in the beginning it only translates to new odds of 1.56%, which is still within normal and random variations. (See the Toms River book for an excellent account of why it is so difficult to conclusively link environmental concerns with cancer.) Even exposure to radiation isn't as cut and dried as you might think and he says that predictions of mass cancer following Chernobyl didn't happen.

This is an informative book but often the information is thrown at the reader in a rapid-fire listing of facts and figures that make it hard to absorb much, and I frequently felt like I was in a whirlwind of data trying to make sense of too much random information. Still, it's a sobering overview of the current status of cancer research and isn't a bad introduction, and the story of his wife's cancer added a human element to the narrative. I still have Siddhartha Mukherjee's book on my reading list, and I'll let you know how that one is once I get around to it, but for now this one was pretty good.

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