Breast CancerAwareness Month is like a catchy summer tune: as easy to support as it is to criticize and impossible to escape. But for all the awareness-raising that bubblegum pink everything does (or doesnt), what do you actually know about cancer? Probably less than you think.

Cancer isnt just one diseaseits many. All cancers arise when a single cell in the body goes rogue and grows out of control. But why does that make you sick, and why havent we found a cure yet? Lets dive in.

The life cycle of a cell

Before we can understand why some cells become tumors, we need to understand why they dont all become tumors.

A cell reproduces by making a copy of all its DNA and then splitting itself in two, where each new cell has an identical copy of DNA. This process is called mitosis. Most of the time, it goes off without a hitch and the DNA is copied flawlessly.

What do you actually know aboutcancer? Probably less than you think.

Just kidding! Your body makes thousands of mistakes every time. Essentially, the little molecules copying your DNA put in the wrong code; they essentially misspell the gene. Most of the time, these mistakes are caught and fixed by editing proteins, and nothing bad happens. Sometimes, a mutation slips through but doesnt affect how the cell functions. Occasionally, the mutation evades its pre-programmed death, or promotes the growth of blood vessels near it to devour additional resources. Sometimes the mutation will make the cell reproduce faster.

Those last types are among the cancerous mutations that make the cell go rogue. But it doesnt usually take just one mutation to get cancer. It takes several, accumulated over the years, for a cell to become a dangerous tumor. In this way, cancer can be seen as a disease of aging. This partially explains why cancer is so much more common than ever before; were simply living long enough to develop and die from it.

Of course, that’s not to say that our environment doesnt contribute to the problem.

Why is cancer so difficult to treat?

Lets circle back to what I said in the beginning: Cancer isnt just one disease. Thats a result of it arising in many different tissue systems in the body (bladder, colon, brain, lungs, skin, and so on) as well as the sheer number of potential combinations of mutations a single cancer cell can have.

The problem is that every cancer is as unique as the individual its affecting.

Currently we try to get rid of cancer by essentially destroying the tumor using chemical means (chemotherapy) or physical ones (surgery). But these methods are crude and obviously not always effective, since people still die from cancer anyway.

Ideally, a universal cancer treatment would somehow be able to recognize a tumor and destroy it completely without affecting the healthy surrounding tissue. By contrast, chemotherapy just targets rapidly dividing cellshopefully hitting the tumor but also hitting your hair follicles (causing your hair to fall out) and your stomach lining (causing you to barf like crazy).

The problem is that every cancer is as unique as the individual its affecting, due to the endless combinations of mutations that can create a single tumor. That means no two tumors are exactly alike, and its hard to find some sort of common factor that will destroy them.

Many hope for tailor-made treatment methods that will allow doctors to target an individuals tumor by sequencing their tumors DNA and then giving them a specific drug (cocktail) to expunge the cancer. And we are making progress toward that end. We have the technology to sequence the DNA of a tumor, and there are more specific drugs hitting the market for particular types of cancer. These drugs tend to block a few different ways cancer cells help themselves grow, such as stimulating the growth of blood vessels.

But, according to biochemist Gerard Evan, cancer cells are adaptiveand sometimes after enough exposure to a drug theyll find ways to circumvent the drug and continue to grow. Other times, theyll simply become resistant to the drug itself throughyou guessed itrandom mutation. In other words, its difficult to treat cancer due to the fundamental nature of cancer itself.

We then have two options, Evan writes for Cancer Research U.K.: Either continue to block those bypasses cancer takes to treatment until its out of options, or block some aspect of a tumors vitality so essential that it dies.

Wow thats grimso how can I protect myself?

There isnt really that much you can do to keep cancer away other than what you already know: Dont smoke and avoid radiationincluding the radiation from the sun. So forgo the tanning bed, put on some sunscreen, and wear a hat. Even in the winter.

Its also probably wise to try to stay fit through diet and exercise. Though the science correlating a healthy diet with lower cancer rates is tenuous, it never hurts to eat a balanced diet and keep your body strong and healthy. But know that no amount of superfoods or alkaline diets will prevent cancer;those myths are not based in science.

Ultimately, cancer boils down to luck of the draw. Theres no surefire way to prevent all cancer, so try not to worry about it so much and enjoy your health while you have it. Whether its cancer or something else, your health is fleeting. Enjoy it while you can.

Photo via StephenDickter/Flickr(CC BY ND 2.0)

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