Blogs by their nature do not go through the editing a writer comes to value before new assemblages of words are let out in the world. No matter how many times I reread and revise a post, I am chagrined how often I find, after pressing “publish,” that there is a typo or two. These are not actually random mistypings — spellcheck usually spots those — but neurological malfunctions. Bugs in the wetware. I will think one word and type another, and with each rereading my mind automatically sees what I intended and not what I typed. The wound heals over and the scab goes unnoticed. Until I press “publish” and the blunders jump out at me. Read More
Long ago when I was working as a police reporter at the Albuquerque Journal, my best friend Richard Freedman called to deliver some exciting news: Murray Gell-Mann was giving a public lecture that evening up in Los Alamos, the city high in the Jemez Mountains where the atomic bomb was devised. Having made less than optimal use of our undergraduate education, Richard and I were studying new subjects like mad. Physics, philosophy, linear algebra — we were sure that somewhere therein lay the secret of the universe.
You know Christmas is coming in Albuquerque when you spot the tumbleweed snowman rising 13 feet over Interstate 40, leering at the shoppers on their way to Coronado Mall. Glommed together from hundreds of these noxious rolling weeds, the smiling giant has become a holiday tradition. For me it stands instead as a sad reminder, of how we lost the war against a relentless invader.
Pictured in so many movies about the American West, tumbling tumbleweeds lope alongside stagecoaches and wagon trains, they amble down Main Street in ramshackle frontier towns. But if you’re watching a film about the California Gold Rush or the Battle for the Alamo and a tumbleweed comes blowing by, you’re witnessing an anachronism. The weeds, also known as Russian thistle or salsola tragus, didn’t arrive on the continent until 1873.
If there is a single refrain in the science of cancer that I found most resonant, it is probably this: Anything that causes cells to divide more quickly increases the chance of mutations — random copying errors that arise when the mother cell’s library of genomic information is duplicated, letter by letter, and passed on to its progeny. The right combination of these genetic misspellings can give a cell the power to pursue a life of its own and become the seed of a cancer.
Sometimes the effect is straight forward. Every gulp of alcohol kills cells that line the alimentary tract. That stimulates the growth of new tissue, increasing the rate of cellular division, and raising the risk of esophageal cancer.
A carcinogen, in other words, does not have to be a mutagen — something that alters DNA. Nor does it have to be a foreign substance. Read More
(excerpt from The Cancer Chronicles, copyright 2013 by George Johnson)
On the early morning flight from Albuquerque to Boston, the captain was wearing a pink tie, and a pink kerchief was peeking from the pocket of his uniform. The flight attendants were similarly dressed, with pink shirts and aprons. It was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and when the plane was in the sky one of the attendants enthusiastically announced that the airline was selling pink lemonade and pink martinis—this on a flight departing at 6 a.m. The proceeds would go for “curing” breast cancer.
No more than a hundred years ago cancer was a word spoken only in whispers lest the illness be stirred from its slumber. One might die of “heart failure” or “cachexia,” a latinized way of saying that, eaten by cancer, a loved one had wasted away. Though the fear has not disappeared, “cancer” is no longer the unutterable word. The cheerfulness with which the subject has been embraced and shouted is almost macabre. A cosmetics company was advertising “Kisses for the Cure.” Buy a lipstick and a small donation would be made to the fight. “Pucker up and Kiss Breast Cancer Goodbye.” Read More
In an op-ed piece today in the New York Times, David Ropeik writes about how people’s fears of radiation often overshadow its dangers.
Our anxiety about nuclear radiation is rooted in our understandable fear of the terrible power of nuclear weapons. But in the 68 years since those weapons were first used in anger, we have learned, from the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki themselves, that ionizing radiation — the type created by a nuclear reaction — is not nearly the powerful carcinogen or genetic mutagen that we thought it was.
In the days after Fukushima, I explored this disconnect in an essay for the Sunday Times called Radiation’s Enduring Afterglow. (Gravity killed more people by far than the nuclear forces.) I was just beginning the research for my book, The Cancer Chronicles, and I ended up writing a chapter, “Gambling With Radiation,” which describes some of the surprising things I learned. Read More
Cancer is a disease of information, in which a cell becomes reprogrammed into a precision killing machine. In the consensus that has emerged from decades of research, this transformation is the result of approximately half a dozen genetic mutations — changes that accumulate over the years to a cell’s DNA.
For us humans these are deadly defects. But from the point of view of the cancer cell, each change is a beneficial adaptation. In a sped-up version of Darwinian evolution, the cells become fitter and fitter in their ability to compete and thrive inside the ecosystem of the body. Read More
Illness as Metaphor
By Susan Sontag (1978)
Though she didn’t say so at the time, Susan Sontag was being treated for cancer when she wrote this powerful exploration of how we use language to obscure the reality of chronic illness. At the time, cancer was still looked upon as a disease conceivably self-inflicted—in some way shameful. Doctors proposed the existence of a “cancer personality,” characteristic of the depressed and lonely, who kept their feelings squeezed so tightly inside that they erupted into tumors. Sontag contrasted society’s view of cancer with the strangely romantic aura that once surrounded tuberculosis, the previous century’s “dread disease.” Poe, Kafka, the Brontë sisters—the tubercular (the famous ones, anyway) were cast as creative, passionate souls, “ ‘consumed’ by ardor.” Nobody, Sontag wrote, could glamorize cancer. She saw another difference: While tuberculosis was a disease of consumption, cancer produced something horrible and new inside the body—like “a demonic pregnancy” or “a fetus with its own will.” A decade later she published a companion essay, “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” Left standing after a round with cancer, she had a new plague to deconstruct. Read More
Last year, when she must have been in the throes of completing her new novel, The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri wrote an essay for the New York Times called “My Life’s Sentences.” The double entendre of the title sent me to an etymological dictionary, and I learned that “sentence” comes from the Latin sentire, meaning “to feel.” By the early 14th century it had migrated into French to describe a particular kind of feeling — a verdict, as in a prison sentence or a judgment from God. It wasn’t until the following century, some 500 years ago, that “sentence” was taken to mean a string of words properly constructed according to a language’s rules.
But the sentences that endure must pass a higher mark. They hold true to the word’s original meaning, unleashing feelings — sensations — that become animate in your head. Read More
When the American Association for Cancer Research released its 2013 progress report last week, it was faced with a familiar dilemma: how to emphasize the good news and the bad news both at the same time. To keep government funding flowing in, the leaders of the research establishment bring out statistics suggesting that tax money isn’t being wasted — that progress is really being made. But lest we become too complacent they are ready with numbers emphasizing how badly we are losing the fight. Sometimes they want to assuage and sometimes they want to frighten, and so they keep two sets of books. Read More