Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., Ph.D., is a leading cancer physician and researcher and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. He describes the passion and commitment of researchers like Sidney Farber, the father of modern chemotherapy and the courage and fortitude of patients like Carla Reed, who was a 30-year-old kindergarten teacher when bruises appeared out of nowhere on her back, a sign of leukemia.
Mukherjee was a fellow in oncology when Carla became his patient. He gives us an intimate view of the demands cancer places on doctors: "In the parking lot of the hospital, a chilly, concrete box lit by neon floodlights, I spent the end of every evening after rounds in stunned incoherence, the car radio crackling vacantly in the background, as I compulsively tried to reconstruct the events of the day. The stories of my patients consumed me, and the decisions that I made haunted me."
The following excerpt offers a vivid picture of what we presently know about how cancer is born in the body and develops over decades, starting with the tiniest environmental insult.
...By the early 1990s, cancer biologists could begin to model the genesis of cancer in terms of molecular changes in genes. To understand that model, let us begin with a normal cell, say a lung cell that resides in the left lung of a forty-year-old fire-safety-equipment installer. One morning in 1968, a minute sliver of asbestos from his equipment wafts through the air and lodges in the vicinity of that cell. His body reacts to the sliver with an inflammation. The cells around the sliver begin to divide furiously, like a minuscule wound trying to heal, and a small clump of cells derived from the original cell arises at the site.
In one cell in that clump an accidental mutation occurs in the ras gene. The mutation creates an activated version of ras. The cell containing the mutant gene is driven to grow more swiftly than its neighbors and creates a clump within the original clump of cells. It is not yet a cancer cell, but a cell in which uncontrolled cell division has partly been unleashed—cancer’s primordial ancestor.
A decade passes. The small collection of ras-mutant cells continues to proliferate, unnoticed, in the far periphery of the lung. The man smokes cigarettes, and a carcinogenic chemical in tar reaches the periphery of the lung and collides with the clump of ras-mutated cells. A cell in this clump acquires a second mutation in its genes, activating a second oncogene.
Another decade passes. Yet another cell in that secondary mass of cells is caught in the path of an errant X-ray and acquires yet another mutation, this time inactivating a tumor suppressor gene. This mutation has little effect since the cell possesses a second copy of that gene. But in the next year, another mutation inactivates the second copy of the tumor suppressor gene, creating a cell that possesses two activated oncogenes and an inactive tumor suppressor gene.
Mutant cells beget cells beget cells. A gene that increases the mobility of the cells is activated in a cell. This cell, having acquired motility, can migrate through the lung tissue and enter the bloodstream. A descendant of this mobile cancer cell acquires the capacity to survive in the bone. This cell, having migrated through the blood, reaches the outer edge of the pelvis, where it begins yet another cycle of survival, selection, and colonization. It represents the first metastasis of a tumor that originated in the lung.
The man is occasionally short of breath. He feels a tingle of pain in the periphery of his lung. Occasionally, he senses something moving under his rib cage when he walks. Another year passes, and the sensations accelerate. The man visits a physician and a CT scan is performed, revealing a rindlike mass wrapped around a bronchus in the lung. A biopsy reveals lung cancer. A surgeon examines the man and the CT scan of the chest and deems the cancer inoperable. Three weeks after that visit, the man returns to the medical clinic complaining of pain in his ribs and his hips. A bone scan reveals metastasis to the pelvis and the ribs.
Intravenous chemotherapy is initiated. The cells in the lung tumor respond. The man soldiers through a punishing regimen of multiple cellkilling drugs. But during the treatment, one cell in the tumor acquires yet another mutation that makes it resistant to the drug used to treat the cancer. Seven months after his initial diagnosis, the tumor relapses all over the body — in the lungs, the bones, the liver. On the morning of October, 17, 2004, deeply narcotized on opiates in a hospital bed in Boston and surrounded by his wife and his children, the man dies of metastatic lung cancer, a sliver of asbestos still lodged in the periphery of his lung. He is seventy-six years old.
I began this as a hypothetical story of cancer. The genes, carcinogens, and the sequence of mutations in this story are all certainly hypothetical. But the body at its center is real. This man was the first patient to die in my care during my fellowship in cancer medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.