Friday, August 16, 2013

If You Give a Cancer Cell a Cookie, It's Going To Want a Glass of Blood...

“Ok, listen up people!  We’ve only got 9 months to get you guys into tip top shape, and then… it’s game time.  You may just be young embryonic cells now, but when I get through with you, you’ll be more than ready to take on the game of life,” yelled the coach, staring down firmly at each undifferentiated cell in the little forming fetus.  “You may be able to nurse off your mommy’s umbilical cord right now, but that’s not going to happen forever.  Pretty soon you’re going to be out there on your own and if you don’t follow what I’m saying, you’re going to be in a world of trouble.  You’re going to need the information I’m giving you, so listen up!  The most important thing you have to remember is to never, ever, under any circumstances… give a cancer cell a cookie!”

The little cells had been listening as intently as they could, but their immature attention spans couldn’t hold on any longer after a long day of learning.  Soon, they were all giggling uncontrollable at the thought of cookies causing their coach to look so stern!  “What are you laughing at?  There’s no laughing in cell differentiation class!” scolded their coach.  Brought abruptly back to attention, they looked intently once again at their teachers face.  “That’s better. Now, stick with me you younglings and we’ll have you in tip top shape before anyone can say ‘Rockabye Baby on the Treetop.’  Any questions?”

One tentative hand rose up to ask the question they’d all been wondering.  “Umm coach?  I though Instructor Ribosome said that nutrient cookies are good for us.  They’re full of oxygen, glucose and all the wonderful nutrients that help us grow!  Wouldn’t that help those poor, deformed cancer cells you were showing us pictures of earlier?” 

“Ah…. You’d think that, but there’s a very important reason why we say to never under any circumstances feed a cancer cell… Ok, I can see that’s not going to fly with you guys.  Lesson time!”  All the kids quickly sat up straight and focused as attentively as their young brains would let them. 

“If you give a cell a cookie, no big, it will just process it into energy that’ll help the whole body to function properly.  But when you give a cancer cell a cookie… watch out because it won’t just end there, it never just ends there…  First though, can anyone tell me what we talked about yesterday?  Does anyone know how a cancer cell becomes a cancer cell in the first place?  Yes, Milly Myocyte?”

“A cell turns into a cancer cell when something messes with its information manual, its DNA code.”

“That’s right Milly.  You’ve been given a set of specific instructions about how to act, when to grow, when to stop growing, what to make and things like that.  But, when something like a free radical gets into that manual, it changes those instructions.  Then, after enough mutations happen to that manual, poor little, nice cells turn into uncontrollable monsters just like that!  Now, does anyone remember what you can do to try and prevent anything from happening to your precious manuals?”

“Eat a lot of antioxidants!”

“Precisely, so you were paying attention!”

“Yes teacher, but I still don’t understand why we can’t give cancer cells cookies.  Maybe if it’s some supercharged nutrients, it will help them get back on track!”

“No, no youngling… that won’t work at all because it won’t end there!  They’ll just keep going and going and...  You see, it’s like this… 

If you give a cancer cell a cookie, it’s going to ask for a glass of blood.

When you give him that little bit of oxygen and nutrients, he’ll probably ask you for a space to grow.

When you give him space to grow, then he’ll divide and make a friend.  When he’s finished growing a friend, then they’ll both ask for more food. 

If they get some more nutrients, they’ll make it a party and rapidly divide to create more friends (oncogenesis). 

Pretty soon, they won’t be enough room for them all, so then they’ll want to expand into neighboring homes.  At that point, you might try to tell them to stop dividing because they’re taking up all the room, but they’ll just turn a deaf ear to your signals.

By that point, they’re going to need a boatload of oxygen, glucose, hormones and nutrients to survive, so they’re going to want some more blood.  But it won’t stop there.  When I say blood, I mean they’re going to want their own dedicated blood supply, so they’re going to want to grow their own blood vessels (angiogenesis).

Then, inevitably, there’s going to be some that get tired of hanging out with the original site crowd and want to start a party somewhere else, so they break away from their current party and spread through the blood or lymphatic systems to a new location (metastasis).  Once they’re happily at home in another part of the body, then they’ll just start the process all over again. 

Then soon, all of your resources will go to feeding those abnormal cells and there won’t be any energy left to spare on things like maintaining homeostasis!”
“Wow…” one of the cells uttered in astonishment.  “And that all just started with a simple, yummy cookie?”

“That’s right kids! So please, whatever you do, don’t give cancer cells any nutrient cookies, or else, before you know it, they’re going to want a glass of blood!”

This tale has been simplified for the sake of giving a basic understanding of the workings behind cancer.  If you’re interested, I highly recommend checking out some of the additional resources for more in-depth information.  And if you find any other great resources, let me know so it can be included in the additional resources for others to find!

Medical Morales to Remember:

  • Carcinogen – something that damages a cell and makes it more likely to become cancerous
  • Mutation – changes in a cell’s DNA
  • Cancer cells – develop from multiple mutations occurring either during reproduction or from carcinogens.  Precancerous cells often are destroyed through apoptosis or by the immune system, so it typically takes a long time before a true cancerous cell escapes the body’s natural defenses and starts to multiply.
    • Characteristics (From Cancer Research UK):
      • Don’t stop reproducing themselves - Oncogenes
      • Have Tumor Suppressor Genes turned off – genes which tell the cell when to stop multiplying and to destroy itself (apoptosis) if damaged
      • Don’t listen to signals from other cells
      • Don’t stick together (metastasis – travel to other parts of the body)
      • Don’t specialize, but stay immature
  • Angiogenesis – creation of a new blood vessel

Additional Resources:

Cancer Support and Blogs:

Do you have anything to add?  Was this story helpful? How have you explained or remembered the workings of cancer in the past?

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