Ken Burns' documentary on Cancer "the Emperor of all Maladies," was extraordinary, especially for me because most of the documented battle has occurred over my lifetime allowing me to closely identify with its twists and turns. And, with the advent of immunotherapy, it seems that the war might at last truly be nearing its end, but our hopes have been dashed before. In this essay I offer another thought that wasn't suggested in the film.
I'll bet that you think that Cancer and Viruses are diseases. I think that you may be wrong. I think that they're both a necessary part of evolution for the salvation of our, and other, species.
According to the concepts of Evolution as discovered by Darwin, plants, animals and fungi all change, over time, in fact over two and one half billion years, through a process of random mixing, mutation and selection. Each process of reproduction offers a species the opportunity to "get creative, or more precisely, get lucky" and produce variations that may become important in the light of new environmental challenges, and thus selection for survival.
But, we have believed that the only time that a species gets to experiment, is when it reproduces. I think that nature is smarter than that. I think that Cancer is essentially nature's "panic button." In the presence of extraordinary danger, extraordinary measures are required. Thus, built into the basic machinery of DNA is its ability to rapidly change (or mutate) in the presence of a threat, for example, a toxin or virus that threatens its survival.
Key to this understanding is to accept the premise that the survival of "the individual" is irrelevant in comparison to the survival of the species. Thus, the unfortunate suffering and death of an individual from a cancerous tumor (which is essentially a harmful or unlucky series of mutations) is the price that we pay, as a species, to have these "panic buttons" built into our DNA.
Maybe it's not simply a coincidence that we've discovered that cancer can be caused by environmental toxins like UV radiation. In fact, with enough UV radiation, eventually, our species would likely evolve to a form that offered a method of protection, and the speed of change is being forced upon us by the very toxin itself.
Roughly half of all types of cancer are known to have causes including environmental toxins and viruses. The remaining half remains a mystery. But my hypothesis is that all are a result of these external stimulants, only I suggest that the initial site of "irritation or infection" is not necessarily where the tumor appears, but rather that the original site causes the expression of a protein that is equivalent to hitting the panic button. That protein then travels through the body, sounding the alarm and a mutation occurs which begins the cancer process at a cell that is most susceptible to the message at that moment. In that way, the fact that smoking may cause breast cancer becomes more plausible.
An interesting part of this is the observation that cancer cells actually mutate many times during their process of "invasion." For example, the primary tumor must mutate again and again in order to eventually metastasize and travel in the bloodstream, and mutate again when it settles in its new homes. It's behavior is more consistent to the "hitting of a panic button" which enables many mutation processes, not just a single case.
Viruses are a slightly different story. I think of them as the FEDEX of the cellular world, or a way for cells to send DNA to other cells. Now, most of our experience with viruses, like cancer, is negative. After all, who wants a cold. But, the transport mechanism of sending DNA through the air has the necessary ability to rapidly spread good stuff as well as bad stuff, and just like cancer, viruses may be an evolutionary trick that is needed in only certain cases for the survival of a species at the cost of many unfortunate but irrelevant deaths.
As part of my teaching entrepreneurship, I spend much of my time thinking about how the concept of evolution can be applied to invention and business models in general and I'm certain that there are parallels to cancer and viruses that have evolved as part of the "Noosphere (see a prior post called Businosaurus Rex)" evolution of ideas that have a similar beneficial impact for the species, while a negative impact to the individual.
Next time you get a cold, think about how lucky we are.
About the Author
Bob Caspe is the CEO at the International Entrepreneurship Center (http://iecpartners.com). He has started three companies, has taught thousands of entrepreneurs around the world, and has mentored and taught students at MIT and Babson College.
Download a copy of his book: Entrepreneurial Action at http://caspegroup.com/textbook.php
Bob's personal website: http://caspegroup.com.