George Johnson has some thoughts about the mythology of cancer and how physicians can better help their patients when they are diagnosed.
Johnson, the author of “The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery,” will be sharing those thoughts based on his extensive research of the topic on Sunday at 8 a.m. in Room 10, on the second floor of the convention center.
“There’s a cancer mythology. It’s embraced by most people who think and talk about cancer, and then there’s the science of cancer. There’s a huge divide between these two. And this is something that really surprised me when I began writing my book,” said Johnson, who started delving into the myths and science when his former wife was diagnosed with metastatic cancer.
As a New Mexico-based science journalist, Johnson has written nine books, been awarded the AAAS Science Journalism Award for articles appearing in the New York Times and was a columnist for the New York Times for several years, among other accomplishments.
He noted that there is a sense among the public that cancer is on the rise and that the rise can be attributed to toxic chemicals in the environment, the foods we eat or food additives, and even electromagnetic waves that are used for communications.
“When you really dig deeper, you realize that for most of these beliefs the evidence is either very weak or in some cases shows that the beliefs are demonstrably wrong,” he said. “Some chemicals and foods are certainly risk factors, but the effect is usually so small that it is almost impossible to distinguish it from statistical noise.”
His talk will challenge the mythology of cancer and highlight the science that dispels those myths.
“I ultimately concluded that the most powerful carcinogen is entropy. Entropy is the tendency of all complex things in the universe to inevitably break down,” he said. “The human body is the most complex thing we know of in the universe, and it’s natural that this ‘order’ is going to steadily unravel.
It is this inevitable breakdown of order that really gives rise to cancer more than any other factor. And most people don’t really realize that.”
Johnson will discuss this idea that entropy is the chief carcinogen and what that means in his talk along with the mythology vs. science belief system that plagues the public discourse. He said the physician’s role in all of this is largely to help their patients understand that cancer is “not their fault,” which he noted, most are already good at doing.
“The challenge is to figure out which of those cancers we can identify early and maybe prevent and which of them can be treated,” Johnson said. “There are cancers like cervical cancer that are caused by a virus that engenders mutations. But cervical cancer could be all but wiped out on the earth, with worldwide vaccination programs. The world health community has been working on that so you can look at some cancers that can be eliminated – another is lung cancer caused by cigarettes –because there’s certain easily identifiable causes.”
However, he added, the more you cure other diseases, such as heart disease, and people live longer, it’s more likely that they’ll live long enough to accumulate one of the deadly combinations of mutations that lead to cancer.
“People think they got cancer or their child got cancer because they drank too much diet coke or because they didn’t eat enough broccoli, and it’s just a horrible thing for people to have to agonize over these things when it’s almost certainly not true,” Johnson said. “So much of it is random. You get this random cluster of mutations and you can do everything right and still get cancer.”