3 Box Model (2) – understanding where the cancer came from (jargon-free!)

Please read “3 Box Model – an introduction” FIRST! (Here) 

“Why did I get this?” “What caused the cancer?” Everyone with cancer wonders, “Why?” It is a question that doctors tend not to address, and, if asked, tend to avoid.

There is no one, simple answer. “We don’t know” or “It was bad luck” are probably the commonest replies. Even when specific genetic mutations can be found in your tumour cells, doctors cannot link this to a specific prior event, a toxic chemical, radiation exposure, too much stress…

While there may not be one clear cause that led to your cancer, like all of life itself – illness included – your cancer is the sum total of everything going on in your life. I sometimes use the following analogy when I address the Why? question:

After this consultation, I get a phone call from the garage that the car is not ready as the parts have not arrived. The call delays me and I need to rush to not miss my train, plus I am pre-occupied about the problem of not having a car when I arrive home. In my rush, I leave the mobile phone in clinic and must go back to find it. I break into a jog – and a sweat – but at least the phone is where I left it in clinic…

There could be limitless consequences of these random events. If I hadn’t taken the car to the garage for repair, a different series of events would have unfurled …

Simply put: Whatever happens next in our lives must necessarily follow what happened before!

This is what happens with cancer – it is a series of random events that happen in a certain order, each at a specific time, which ultimately lead to a cell turning “bad”. If the changes in this “bad” cell rewire it with a greater capacity for survival and growth than normal cells, then it can multiply to make new copies of itself and develop into a tumour.

These random events ultimately impact at the level of the cells. Our cells are bombarded with signals (messages) from all directions every second of every day, from neighbouring cells, chemicals from distant organs, signals from the brain…and inside the cells there are complicated changes in response to all of this cellular traffic, which keep the cell healthy.

However, the system is not perfect and in amongst the billions of new cells made every day, a few cells will go wrong. For example, a cell may acquire a genetic mutation, but the vast majority of genetic mutations lead to the cell dying. Even if this “bad” cell survives, it will still not, by itself, be enough to lead to cancer. This is because your incredible immune system can detect and eat it! However, a weakened immune system may fail to detect and eliminate a rogue cell. Or an intact immune system could become overwhelmed by the accumulation of rogue cells or a particularly damaged “bad” cell (from multiple insults – alcohol, smoking, toxic chemicals, medicines, psychological insults…).

These random events are just part of the countless events that have happened in your life before, and right up to, the cancer developing. Modern medicine is focused on treating the disease rather than the causes of the disease – in oncology, this means the killing of the cancer cells. While this is an essential part of your care, it is only dealing with the symptoms of the underlying causes of cancer, but what about dealing with the causes? To do this, a holistic approach to your care is needed, looking at you as a whole person and not just as a patient with a specific disease that needs to be eradicated.

In summary, you can, and should be, in charge of your health, which in turn means in charge of your life. Your mental outlook, how you view life, your lifestyle, what you eat and drink… will all impact on your physical health. Addressing these issues needs to be part of your treatment, hand-in-hand with the cancer drugs, the surgery or radiotherapy that you may need – this will give you the best chance of dealing with the treatment and getting the best response possible.


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