Why people are afraid of “contracting” cancer – and why panic is dangerous

For people with cancer who come to Moscow for examination and treatment, the Podari Zhizn charitable foundation pays for the rent of apartments. In early December, it became known that residents of one of these houses were collecting signatures for the eviction of these people – because, in their opinion, cancer is contagious. “Cancer is a contagious infectious disease! .. We are a breeding ground for infection!” – says the petition, under which the tenants are asked to sign. We will tell you who at different times considered oncological diseases infectious and why this is not so.  

Humanity has been fighting against malignant tumors for a long time, and during this time a variety of theories of their origin have arisen. Of course, there was also an infectious one. The cover of Life magazine from 1962 with one of the last photo sessions of Marilyn Monroe and a large inscription “Received new evidence that cancer is contagious” remained in memory of this time . In the sixties of the last century, the world was more determined than ever. Medicine has just with the help of an effective vaccine defeated polio – a terrible disease that has crippled more than one generation of people.    

Cancer was to be next. The degree of boiling in society has reached such a point that US President Richard Nixon, inclined, according to oncologist and writer S. Mukherjee, to approach tasks assertively, could no longer ignore the problem. The ambitious president planned to defeat cancer in just a few years. Despite the fact that the detection of viruses was then “in vogue”, and funding for the project was excessive, the infectious agent that causes tumors could not be found. Scientists have come to the conclusion that cancer occurs due to the activation of internal proto-oncogenes – genes that regulate cell division and, as a result of mutation, can make it uncontrollable. Later, they were so disappointed in the viral theory of cancer that it took Harald zur Hausen a lot of time and effort to convince colleagues that the human papillomavirus can cause cervical cancer – he made his discovery in 1976.

Several cases of “infection” with cancer have been described – however, this required far from contact or airborne droplets, but actually cell transplantation

However, in the literature, several cases of “infection” with cancer are indeed described – however, this required far from contact or airborne droplets, but actually transplantation of tumor cells. For example, in 1986, a publication appeared about a laboratory assistant who accidentally injured her arm with a syringe containing colorectal cancer cells, and a tumor grew in this place. The same thing happened with the surgeon who operated on a cancer patient and was accidentally injured. Genetic analysis of the tumor by the surgeon showed that it is identical to the tumor that the patient had. Later, these people were doing well: they were cured and there were no signs of tumors. Such cases were repeated after – it is known that almost two thirds of tumors accidentally transplanted with donor organs die in the new organism.      

But there are other examples as well. In the same distant sixties, doctors transplanted melanoma cells from daughter to mother in the hope that the immune system of a healthy woman would develop antibodies against cancer. The experiment ended in complete failure – both women died from the progression of melanoma. Roughly the same thing is now happening with the Tasmanian devils : these animals die because they infect each other with cancer. Living on an isolated island has led to closely related interbreeding, and aggressive behavior and territorial wars contribute to the transmission of a disease known as the Tasmanian Devil’s Facial Tumor.    

In an experiment on hamsters, scientists also managed to get cancer, which in the laboratory was capable of being transmitted from one animal to another. True, the point here is not in the viral or bacterial cause of cancer, but in one of its features: in order for a tumor to develop, it must “escape” from the immune response. Malignant cells are formed daily, and normal immunity copes with them without leaving a trace. So, in closely related hamsters, the “defect” of the immune system turned out to be such that it allowed the development of the same tumors. If cancer cells enter a healthy organism that is not genetically related, then, most likely, they will be defeated.  

It is also impossible to get cancer in the laboratory, although the yellow press once almost convinced the whole world of the opposite. All in the same sixties of the last century, scientists were faced with the problem of contamination of some laboratory cell cultures with others, or rather, just one – HeLa cells. These cells were obtained from a tumor of the cervix of a young African-American woman Henrienta Lacks, who soon died from the disease. HeLa (HEnrietta LAcks) turned out to be the first human cells in the world that can survive in an artificial environment in a laboratory – and they are actively used for scientific purposes to this day.  

They test the effect of various drugs and substances, including cancer drugs; the polio vaccine was tested on the same cell line. Due to the lack of sterile instruments, special equipment and standardized algorithms for work, HeLa cells were often accidentally infected with other cell cultures – and the problem reached such a scale that it questioned all the scientific achievements of previous years, and scientists began to seriously discuss the problem of “infectious cancer “. It should be noted that not a single case of infection of people who worked with HeLa cells is known.

This is a vicious circle: the worse others treat those who are sick, the more difficult it is to destigmatize the disease.

So, at the moment, humans have not described “infectious” types of cancer. There are tumors that can be triggered by a chronic viral infection, such as HPV (cervical cancer) or hepatitis C virus (hepatocellular cancer). But even oncogenic viruses are not cancer viruses. The same HPV in most people is spontaneously eliminated from the body within several years after infection, while in others it exists harmlessly for many years.  

With regard to cervical cancer, the most common tumor that can be caused by oncogenic viruses, effective screening and prevention programs have long existed – you can read about this, for example, on the website of the Cancer Prevention Foundation. HPV vaccination, which was initially recommended only for children, and then for women under 26, is now recommended in many countries for people under 45, regardless of gender. And, perhaps, it is worth reminding yourself more often that cancer is, in the vast majority of cases, a disease of the lifestyle. So, smoking is the main cause of almost fifteen types of tumors, and obesity is thirteen.         

Low awareness provokes fear, and fear, in turn, provokes aggression and an attempt to defend against perceived danger. And it’s not just about collecting signatures against renting apartments – it’s about making serious decisions. According to one of the urban legends of St. Petersburg, the Oncology Research Institute was built away from the city precisely out of the desire to isolate patients (and , ironically, a tuberculosis dispensary was placed at the planned location). It is not known whether this is true or not – but it is not difficult to imagine the train of thought of the people who made the decision.  

The worst thing in the end is for those who are already under attack – people with a serious illness and their loved ones. This is a vicious circle: the worse others treat those who are sick, the more difficult it is to destigmatize the disease and form an understanding of how much help and care is needed, even if life cannot be saved. Until humanity succeeds in getting rid of cancer or making it curable in all cases, it is necessary to invest not only in new developments, but also in palliative care and pain relief – which means that we must be kinder at all levels. 

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