The Unexpectedly Loose Connection Between Radioactivity and Cancer

By George Johnson | October 22, 2013 10:01 am

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

MORE ABOUT: Cancer, Fukushima, Hiroshima

Cancer’s Deadly Darwinian Imperative

By George Johnson | October 21, 2013 2:49 pm

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

Five Great Books About Living with a Consuming Disease

By George Johnson | October 17, 2013 9:35 am

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

Doing Hard Time

By George Johnson | September 30, 2013 11:04 am

Jhumpa Lahiri. Photo © Marco Delogu. Courtesy Random House.

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

Learning to Expect Less From the War on Cancer

By George Johnson | September 22, 2013 7:41 pm

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cancer, select, top-posts

Glowing Tumors, Cyclopean Eyes, and a Cancer Called Medulloblastoma

By George Johnson | September 15, 2013 11:32 pm

The protein produced by the sonic hedgehog gene. Wikimedia Commons.

I was listening this morning to Joe Palca’s sad, beautiful story on NPR’s Morning Edition about medulloblastoma, the most common childhood brain cancer. Among adults the cancer hardly every occurs — its prevalence is about 8 cases for every 10 million people. In children there are 5 cases per 100,000.

One of them is a 12-year-old boy named Carver, who is being treated at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Carver’s brain tumor was successfully removed by surgery but not without side effects.

“Carver’s short-term memory is a mess,” Palca reported, “ and he has difficulty walking. His eyes haven’t been pointing straight since his tumor was removed. That’ll take more surgery to fix. None of these problems was caused by Carver’s cancer.” They’re the result of the treatment. Read More

Jurassic Cancer

By George Johnson | September 7, 2013 4:26 pm

Dinosaur National Monument. photo by George Johnson

I figured no one would expect a book about cancer to start with a dinosaur, so that is how I decided to begin The Cancer Chronicles. Early on in my research I had run across an occasional mention of a dinosaur that had been diagnosed with cancer. The evidence consisted of a single fossil — a tumor petrified inside a bone.

That is about all the information that was readily available, but as I tracked down the story, I learned the fascinating details. Read More

The Cancer Chronicles: Today Is Publication Day

By George Johnson | August 27, 2013 10:40 am

updated, September 1, 2013

Years ago one of my colleagues described the approach of publication day as “the calm before the calm.” And that is usually how it goes. Your long work done, you wait in quiet anticipation for the official date, knowing all the while that it is an artificial concoction. Unless there has been a horrible mistake, the book has been available in stores for at least a couple of weeks, and there is no law preventing them from displaying and selling it. In fact that is what you hope they do. (Amazon and Barnes & Noble respect the tradition by only taking preorders). More important, the publications that review books — and there still are many — tacitly agree not to publish until on or after the pub date. Sometimes they jump the gun, but usually not by much. This has been and remains an honorable profession.

Anyway, today, August 27, 2013, is when The Cancer Chronicles finally is released. I began writing it three years ago. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cancer Chronicles, select, top-posts

Counting Skeletons

By George Johnson | August 15, 2013 2:28 pm

From the Morton Collection of 19th Century Skulls. University Communications, University of Pennsylvania. via Flickr.

In my previous dispatch, I described the reasoning behind demographer Carl Haub’s estimate that a whopping total of 108 billion people have lived and died since modern homo sapiens appeared. Since the current world population is about 7.1 billion, the old shibboleth that “more people are alive today than have ever lived” is wildly wrong. A lot of readers probably already knew that, but it was a surprise to me — and to my editor — when I first came across the number for a story I wrote for the New York Times.

Haub may be off by several billion (he makes a good case that, if anything, his figure is an underestimate), but all I was really after was an order-of-magnitude calculation — the right number of zeroes. For something so uncertain that is as precise as you can hope to get.

What I wondered next was how much of that subterranean horde has been excavated in recent centuries and made available for scientific study. Read More

How Many People Ever Lived?

By George Johnson | August 11, 2013 7:58 pm

Vintage postcard of Cuban cemetery. Flickr

While I was writing The Cancer Chronicles, I came to a point, early on, where I wondered how many people had ever been alive in the world. The best answer I could find came from a study by an organization called the Population Reference Bureau: 108 billion.

I was stunned by the magnitude of the number. It is still common to hear that more people are alive today than have ever lived. Or an even more extreme claim: that 75 percent of everyone who ever walked the earth is living today. But that is not even close to being correct. By the Population Reference Bureau’s reckoning, the proportion of living to dead is only about 6 percent.

The author of the study, Carl Haub, describes the assumptions that went into his calculations. Read More

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Fire in the Mind

Whether a subtle new pattern shows up in an experiment on the Higgs boson, an epidemiological report about a suspected cancer cluster, or a double-blind trial purporting to demonstrate ESP, it can be maddeningly difficult to distinguish between what we see and what we think we see. "Fire in the Mind" takes a look at the big questions behind today’s science news.
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