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Home News and Update Year 2011 When Cancer Talks About Itself

When Cancer Talks About Itself

Times of India
27 April 2011
By Shobha John

Cancer is named after ‘karkinos’, the Greek word for crab, because Hippocrates thought that the blood vessels around a malignant tumor seemed like its claws Cancer is named after ‘karkinos’, the Greek word for crab, because Hippocrates thought that the blood vessels around a malignant tumor seemed like its claws
When I was sick, I saw more beauty and triumph and truth in a single day than I ever did in a bike race," said cycling champion Lance Armstrong after he was struck by cancer in 1996. Difficult to believe? For most people, the C word spells doom. But the Pulitzer-winning "The Emperor of all Maladies", a biography of cancer written by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, could change this.

Surprisingly, even those afflicted by cancer, are eager to read more about it. Might not they become distressed? No, the quest for knowledge is more important, they say.

For Hyderabad-based Devi Gopal, 53, who won the battle against cancer in 2010, this book will reaffirm all she went through. "It’ll be reassuring to know I am not the odd one out, there are others who went through a similar experience." Sadly, shame is still associated with cancer, she says.

"I was told by other patients to keep quiet about my illness. But it isn’t something to be ashamed about. It’s not as if I am involved in the 2G scam."

Even Sunny John who lost his wife, Anne, to breast cancer in 2009, says he’ll read the book. "Though cancer was a part of my life for six years, I only have a general idea about it. An oncologist’s viewpoint will be more specific and could help me look out for symptoms."

This determination to face cancer head-on and see its unglorious face is a new, welcome trend. It’s a far cry from the myths that revolved around it, some bordering on the ridiculous. Till recently, cancer was like TB, which was considered a disease induced by melancholia and epilepsy seen as a sign of madness.

The ancient Egyptians believed cancer was caused by the gods. Others thought it was caused by parasites. Even today, the ill-informed believe the excessive intake of sugar or salt can cause cancers to grow faster, points out oncologist P K Julka, a professor at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences. "Some feel it’s contagious and can be transmitted through kissing or got through keeping fasts," he adds.

The treatment traditionally used to deal with cancer was just as uninformed – barley, pigs ear, castor oil, poultices, even arsenic. In Constantinople, cancer was thought to be due to excess black bile.

But cancer is as old as mankind. The earliest description was found in Egypt between 3000 BC and 1500 BC. Cancer is named after karkinos, the Greek word for crab, because Hippocrates thought that the blood vessels around a malignant tumor seemed like its claws.

But it was the discovery of the microscope that truly revolutionized cancer cure. For the first time, scientists were able to see the way normal cells mutated and became cancerous. The 20th century witnessed great advances in treating cancer – chemotherapy and radiation – but the ultimate cure remains elusive. Therein lies the thirst to know more.

Annapoorni, a history teacher at Delhi’s Mother’s International School, says she would read Mukherjee’s book because it’s about our body and written like a thriller. Mumbai-based Mithun Mukherjee says that cancer is undoubtedly a morbid subject but important to learn about.

"Don’t we read books about the holocaust and euthanasia?" P S Banerjee, an engineer in Noida, admits he would have to mentally prepare himself to read about cancer "but yes, it’s a dark reality of life." Even oncologists, for whom cancer is a bread-and-butter matter, express fascination at the prospect of a different perspective on the disease.

Dr Tejinder Kataria, chairperson, radiation oncology at Gurgaon’s Medanta Medicity says she would like to know the perspective of another oncologist. "It would make me more empathetic. Even today, despite three decades in this field, I still cry over my patients. We doctors are human too."

Julka, who has written a book on cancer, says lay readers need to know "that if caught early, cancer is curable. But calling cancer ‘Emperor’ is glamourizing it; every disease is bad." Dr Kumar Prabhash, associate professor of oncology at Tata Memorial Hospital says he was surprised how a difficult subject like cancer is given the thriller treatment. "It’s almost as if cancer is talking about itself."

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