Although I’ve spent years researching and writing about health, the deeper I go digging down the cancer rabbit hole, the more I realize how much we still have to learn. To begin with, cancer is not a single disease. More than 100 separate types of cancer have been identified, each with its own particular etiology, characteristics and treatment. However, we do know infinitely more now than we did a century ago about just what cancer is and what factors contribute to its development.
Since my husband’s diagnosis a couple of months ago, we’ve been focused on learning about the type he is facing, oropharyngeal cancer, so we can be in the best position possible to help in his cure. I should say here that while I often write about things that are personal to me, I am always respectful of the privacy of the other people in my life. In this case, Dempsey has encouraged me to share information about his experience, so it may be useful to someone else.
Cancer is an unregulated growth of malignant cells in the body, often resulting in the formation of tumors. Human cells are preprogrammed to die (a process called apoptosis); in fact, between 50 and 70 billion cells die everyday in the average adult. These cells are disposed of by the body, and are replaced with new cells. Different types of cells have differing life spans, which are genetically determined.
The lifespan of cells is encoded in their DNA. Mutations in DNA can interfere with apoptosis. Genetic damage to cells can be inherited, or it can occur as a result of outside factors. The inherited factor is often a predisposition to cancer (or some other disease), and the disease process moves forward only when there is a second or third contributing factor.
We know that environmental elements often play a strong role in cancer. For example, the link between cancer and smoking is proven, as is the link between cancer and asbestos, among numerous other carcinogens. Today our bodies are bombarded with chemicals for which evolution has not had time to prepare. These include plastics, artificial food additives and preservatives, and literally hundreds of chemicals in the cleaning and cosmetic products we use (many of which are banned in Europe).
Other lifestyle factors are weight and fitness. Obesity has been linked to higher rates of cancer.
Six viruses from different families are known to cause some types of cancer. Scientists are continuing to explore the possibility there are other viruses linked to cancer.
Diet may play some role in the development of cancer, as research has shown a relationship between malignancies and inflammation in the body. Our modern diet of processed, factory-created food, poor-quality fats and high sugar and meat consumption leads to elevated levels of inflammation. A diet of whole, natural foods creates a more alkaline environment in the body.
Our immune system is designed to protect us against disease, but we know that stress undermines the immune system. One British study of 163,000 cancer patients showed that patients who were depressed and anxious were 32 percent more likely to die of their disease. The author of the study, Dr. David Batty of University College London, says, “Our findings contribute to the evidence that poor mental health might have some predictive capacity for certain physical diseases.”
Anecdotally, there are many instances in which people have suffered emotional trauma and then developed cancer a few years later. On a spiritual level, cancer provides an opportunity to make a new decision as to whether someone wants to continue living, or to leave the planet.
Dempsey smoked cigarettes for a period of his life, but he quit more than 20 years ago. He worked fighting fires when he was young, but hasn’t had any extraordinary chemical exposure since then. He’s a big man, and he has carried extra weight for the past couple of decades, but he has lost much of that gradually during the past three years. We eat a whole, natural diet of mostly organic foods, and he is moderately active.
Like most of us, he has suffered trauma. During the economic downturn in 2009, our business suffered and our income dropped significantly. We were unable to qualify to refinance a balloon mortgage on our home, and although we escaped foreclosure, we lost most of the equity we’d acquired. It was hard for all of us to give up our home, but probably hardest on Dempsey. He grew up in the projects, and the beautiful house with the pool and his carefully-tended gardens was a symbol of what we had accomplished.
He lost his mother a few years ago. They had a complicated relationship, but he loved her very much. He grieved not just over her death, but over the health problems she’d suffered, and the fact she had a difficult life.
In Dempsey’s case, the pathology report on his tumor confirms what we knew might be the case. His cancer is related to the HPV 16 virus. HPV 16 and 18 are the “high risk” strains of the virus that are responsible for an increasing number of head and neck cancers in men and cervical cancer in women, as well as vulvar, vaginal, penile and anal cancer.
There are over 100 known strains of the HPV virus. The vast majority of sexually-active men and women will have one or more strains at some point in their lives, although in most cases, the immune system clears or suppresses the virus. Sometimes, however, the virus remains in the system undetected for decades, and can cause cellular changes that create lesions that eventually grow into tumors.
Dempsey and I met when he was 35 and I was 47; he’d never been married and I had been single for 20 years. Either one of us could have brought the virus into the relationship. His first thought was concern he might have infected me, and mine was concern I might have given it to him. There is no way to know, and of course, it doesn’t matter. Since I’ve never had a questionable Pap test, my immune system seems to have done its job.
There is now a vaccine for HPV. It is administered in two doses six months apart, ideally before a young person becomes sexually active (although it can be taken up to 26 years old). It’s something to consider. These cancers are not something you ever want your kids to face.
The bad news is that the HPV caused his cancer. The good news is that HPV-related malignancies are highly responsive to treatment. One study involving throat cancer (the type from which Michael Douglas recovered a few years ago) shows a 79-82 percent five-year survival rate.
In Dempsey’s case, there is a counter-balancing factor of a fast-growing tumor. No other genetic testing was done on his tumor, but we can assume any cancer cells that remain in his body are also likely to be aggressive. That’s the reason his team of doctors – the surgeon, oncologist and radiologist – wanted him back in Phoenix as soon as possible to begin treatment. That starts in a few days.
We’re moving forward with faith, hope and optimism.