Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cancer 101 Part 2 - What Causes Skin Cancer?

In the last post we looked at what cancer is. We know cancer is basically cells that refuse to stop dividing (gone crazy). In this post, I will try to explain what causes cancer. Please note: I am neither a doctor or cancer expert. If anything that I say is misleading or wrong, please let me know and I will change it immediately. What I put here I have learned from my doctors over the last 9 months fighting cancer.

So, there are these crazy cells that won’t stop dividing right? What causes that? Don’t they know when to stop, and why doesn’t the problem just fix itself?

It starts with DNA. DNA is the “user manual” for a cell. It tells the cell what kind of cell to be, and how to be that kind cell. It also governs the cells lifecycle by telling it how to divide and when to stop dividing. OK, it is actually much more complicated than that, but one can think of DNA as a cell’s brains. Unfortunately, DNA can be damaged, and that is what causes cancer.

A common cause of cancer is radiation exposure (think nuclear bomb or power plant meltdown). Radiation causes damage to DNA, changing it slightly or damaging it just a bit. Usually, small bits if damage to DNA have no effect. All they really do is make the cell unable to function or reproduce. Imaging if you took the instruction manual to your oven and randomly changed 1000 letters in the book. The odds are good that the book wouldn’t make any sense anymore. However, what if you just happened to change the first sentence to say “put your head in the oven and turn it on.” Those random changes just made a big mess.

When DNA damage causes cancer, it means that the cell’s “user manual” no longer contains the instructions on how to stop dividing. There are many things that can change the “words” of a cell’s DNA. Radiation (nukes) and chemical toxins (chemicals in cigarettes) are two of the most common.

There are also genetic traits that can predispose you to getting certain kinds of cancer. This doesn’t mean that my son will get cancer because I did, but it does mean that he is more likely to get it than someone whose dad did not have skin cancer.

So what causes skin cancer? If we only knew… Current conventional wisdom points to UV Radiation. The sun’s light is composed of many colors (ever see a rainbow). Some of those colors we can’t even see. One of those colors us ultraviolet. If you could see ultraviolet colors through a prism, they would be just beyond purple in the rainbow. As it turns out, exposure to this UV light damages the DNA of melanocytes, the cells responsible for the color of your skin. If they are damaged enough, they can go crazy and become cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States with 1 million new cases diagnosed every year. The best way to protect yourself from getting skin cancer is to wear sun block when outdoors ALL THE TIME and do not tan. If you do tan, you run the risk of being a great looking corpse, because you died of skin cancer.

Next in this series we will look at the current treatments for cancer, how they work, and what is on the horizon.

Death to Cancer

1 comment:

Cynthia said...

Hey Jason,

This is very helpful and extremely interesting, but I wish you didn't know all this stuff. Merry Christmas! Our prayer is you have a cancer free New Year. Cynthia