What Do We Really Know About Cancer?

Some of the recurring themes in my conversations with my oncologist have been that there’s so much we still don’t know about cancer and that the truth will likely be much more complex than we realize.

The recommendations offered as ways to reduce the risk of cancer should not be misconstrued as sure ways of preventing the disease. Thinking we can prevent something gives us a sense of security, which is what we crave. With cancer, we don’t yet have a clear view of how the processes that initiate a DNA mutation translate into our everyday world behaviors or environmental influences, if they even do. What we know is mostly correlational, which means that there seems to be a connection between two things, that they occur together. But that does not mean that one causes the other.

Consider this example: the growth of grass that comes in spring is correlated with the appearance of robins searching for worms. But it would be incorrect to say that the appearance of robins causes the grass to grow. That’s confusing correlation with causation.

In the case of cancer, we don’t have significant causal information when it comes to providing guidelines to humans about what to do and what not to do to prevent the disease. We can offer suggestions, although as in the case of the robins, we can be way off in terms of the way that one thing might affect the other.

Perhaps most unsettling is that as humans, we’re used to being the top predator. What we don’t have as protection inherently (claws, fur, huge teeth), we can use our big brains to manufacture. Cancer, however, still exerts its dominance over us.

We are trying, of course, and learning more all the time. Witness how far we’ve come with treatments, and how we’ve affected the survival rates. That’s a significant and positive step – as a breast cancer survivor, I can attest to that.

But not being able to effectively address the cause means that the treatments, as effective as they may be, take a huge toll on the patient both physically and psychologically. Many of us struggle in recovering from treatments that are considered highly effective, while others succumb to either the disease or the treatment itself.

So as the Breast Cancer Awareness Month of October comes to a close, it’s a good time to celebrate all the positives associated with our medical advances, but also keep an open heart for those who continue to suffer from any type of cancer.

And many of those do not have the benefit of being highlighted in pink.

Two Assumptions I Wish Doctors Didn’t Make About Cancer

Cancer can turn you into a stress-ball on its own, thankyouverymuch, but there are things that healthcare workers do that may worsen matters.

While there is always room for improvement in the many subtleties of physician-patient interactions (with subtleties being the operative term here, as anxious patients may be zeroing in on the “feel” of interactions and not just the spoken words), there are two big assumptions that I wish doctors would realize that they’re making:

Eat your vegetables and you won’t get cancer? I wish it were that simple.

The first assumption I’ve experienced has been made by non-oncologist physicians. They seem to be just as likely as the rest of the population to confuse correlations with causations. One doctor had been surprised that I had gotten cancer (hey, join the club) because my lifestyle “should” have been protective.

This physician, you could argue, was justified in saying what he did, as the messages we are bombarded with suggest that we have some control over our risk for cancer. However, read the fine print and you’ll see that in a great number of cases the risk factors that a cancer patient has don’t differ from those of someone who doesn’t develop cancer. But even doctors miss the fine print…

I brought this up to my oncology team which was quick to point out that as long as we don’t definitively know what causes cancer, we can’t make assumptions about whether or not someone will get the disease. So, yeah.

The other major assumption is one that I’ve gotten from the oncological community, and that is that on some level, most patients with a given cancer have the same health profile. Ironically, this concept is often mixed in with the conflicting assertion that everyone’s cancer experience is different. Granted, when you’ve seen a gazillion cancer patients, similarities emerge, and consciously or not there’s probably a tendency to pigeonhole people. Still it’s frustrating to be treated like I fit into a slot when I really don’t.

Effective communication is a critical part of quality physician-patient interactions.

My own oncologist has realized that, thankfully, but he has done a good job of listening and I do a (*cough cough*) good job of talking. Perhaps a bit too good, since he’s mentioned that it would be best if I scheduled my appointment to be his last of the day, so that we don’t face as many time restrictions. But therein lies my point: oncologists need to ask and patients need to share, otherwise, the patient remains a two-dimensional entity and it’s more likely that assumptions will be made about them.

So if there’s a take-home message from any of this, it’s that good communication is an essential part of effective treatment. This is not an easy feat, as physicians have a limited amount of time with each patient, and patients might not think that a given aspect of their experience is relevant. Believe me, it is, and the more that we talk about this and get into the nitty gritty of it, the easier it will be for everyone involved.