Meditations of an oncology geek

Ask a Scientist: Cancer Q&A

with 6 comments

Intro / About

Do you support cancer awareness? Of course you do. So, what exactly do you know about cancer?

It is fashionable to be anti-cancer. Celebrities, politicians, and people on the street commonly display the pink and yellow imagery of this public awareness battle (breast cancer and Lance Armstrong Foundation, respectively). But really, wearing a bracelet or a ribbon of a particular color does not actually protect anyone against cancer. What it does is show that one is aware. Of an awareness campaign.

I support cancer awareness. I work for an oncology diagnostics company but before that I did my Ph.D. research at a comprehensive cancer center. I’ve been at the crossroads of developments in research, therapies, and prevention. I spend most of my conscious hours learning and thinking about cancer. Though my knowledge is by no means exhaustive, I like to think that I have gleaned enough along the way to be of use to others.

Cancer education is an integral part of my societal responsibility as a Ph.D. This blog is used as an arm of outreach to answer questions about cancer in plain english. From February 2011 until January 2012 I authored an average of one article per week. From January 2012 onward I have continued to research and write articles per request.


Previous topics:
Cancer 101: Hallmarks of Cancer A great starting point for understanding basic cancer biology.
Why are cancer rates rising? Cancer is not a contemporary disease. A brief overview of the history of cancer and causes.
How can children be born with cancer? Although rare in comparison, children do occasionally get cancer. And some are born with it!
Why do cancer patients lose their hair? A bald head is the symbol of a cancer patient. Find out why.
What is a carcinogen? Lots of things can contribute to cancer development, but how?
Is cancer a genetic disease? Short answer: Yes. But most of the time it is not genetically heritable. Confused? No problem. Read on!
How the body sees cancer: A wound that never heals How could aspirin prevent cancer?
Can cellphones cause brain cancer? Could there be little green men on Mars?
Can cancers be caused by viruses? Yes, and the major types of cancer-causing viruses can be prevented via vaccination.
If cancer were a color, what color would it be? Orange. Yup. You heard me.
When is cancer considered “terminal” and what exactly does that mean?
Can smoking cause cancer even after quitting? Unfortunately, yes.
What’s the difference between a tumor and cancer?
Does cancer treatment vary by stage of diagnosis?
Why does testicular cancer mostly affect young people?
Why haven’t you (Ryon) discovered a cure for cancer?
How can cancer be prevented? The science may surprise you.
What types of cancer are there? “Cancer” is actually a broad term used to describe a class of diseases, often with overlapping symptoms, mechanisms, epidemiology, and therapy.
Does everything cause cancer? Sweeping generalizations are dangerously un-scientific, but CfD casts caution to the wind this week and declares most things in the news to be sensationalism. To resist fear-mongering, it’s important to focus on the things that have a STRONG link to cancer.
Could astaxanthin be an internal sunscreen? Probably not. And it’s not very reassuring that Cyanotech, a major producer of dietary astaxanthin, has been fabricating science to support their product.
Do cell phones cause cancer? (part III) There is no plausible mechanism. And it’s not because scientists aren’t looking.
Do cell phones cause cancer? (part II) A controversial WHO ruling this week lists cell phones as “Potentially carcinogenic”. Cancer for Dummies re-visits this topic and criticizes the WHO ruling.
Can suncreen CAUSE cancer? There’s actually a lot of buzz on the issue in the popular press, but will the data hold up?
How can one have a normal level of a tumor biomarker?
Sunscreen DOES prevent melanoma There is no dogma in science. Everything must be questioned with experiments if possible. The hard data backs it up: sunscreen does prevent melanoma.
How did Lance Armstrong beat his cancer?
What type of cancer is most painful? My pick: bone metastasis. I’ll explain why.
What types of cancer existed in ancient times? Cancer is not a contemporary disease by any means.
Building the ship outside of the bottle: how personal genome sequencing is going to be a game-changer for oncology
Thought experiment: How would you design a cancer drug? Seriously
Killing Zombie Cells Slows Aging!
Could cancer screening be harmful? In some cases cancer screening might do more harm than good.
Could alternative cancer therapies shortened the life of Steve Jobs?
Why is Pancreatic Cancer hard to treat?
Can aspirin prevent cancer? Actually, it might…
How bad is red meat?
Post-9/11 cancer?
What do cancer researchers do all day in the lab?
Do taller women develop cancer more frequently?
Does aspartame cause cancer? Do you ear a pound of aspartame per day?
Do we all have some level of cancer?
Can Exercise Help Prevent Cancer? In short: yes. Read how. An interesting topic proposed by my athletically minded friends.
Genomic Jiu Jitsu It might be possible to exploit a deadly strength of cancer and use it against itself in the near future.

Written by Ryon

February 20th, 2011 at 1:09 pm

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6 Responses to 'Ask a Scientist: Cancer Q&A'

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  1. I was just turned onto this site by a friend. I am currently battling cancer. In April, My CEA (cancer marker) was at 22. Today, in the last week of July, it is at 1.9. My oncologist told me this was the “normal” range; was pleased and refused to enlighten me beyond that. What does it mean to have a “normal” cancer marker? Does this mean we all walk around with some level of “cancer” in our bodies and this is the acceptable level? What’s going on?


    26 Jul 11 at 6:02 am

  2. Hi Anne,

    I am sorry to hear of your cancer battle, but I am pleased to hear that an experienced oncologist was pleased at your current biomarkers. However, I am not pleased that he was not willing to discuss exactly what that means. You hit on a very interesting topic that I would like to explore with an article. In between doing experiments in lab I will research your question further and have a response for you as soon as possible!



    29 Jul 11 at 9:28 am

  3. Hey Ryon,

    My co-worker Emily mentioned your website several months ago and I finally got around to browsing through it. Just wanted to thank you for sharing your knowledge in such a clear and informal format. I truly appreciate your contribution to cancer education.

    Thanks again,


    23 Mar 12 at 2:49 pm

  4. Hi Turaj,

    I’m glad you found my blog! If there is a topic or question that you or someone you know would like me to investigate, please do not hesitate to ask a “dumb” question.



    23 Mar 12 at 3:10 pm

  5. Hey Ryon,

    After our talk about skin cancer I was left with this question: what enables melanomas to metastasize but not carcinomas? Also, could this ability to metastasize be gained by a carcinoma?



    9 Nov 12 at 3:22 am

  6. Hey Leo,

    Start here:

    Melanomas are a type of carcinoma. Other types of skin cancer include basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. The latter two can metastasize, but usually not as quickly as melanomas, and have a much higher rate of survival. I am not sure why, but it likely has to do with the underpinning cell signaling prevalent in melanomas vs. other skin cancers. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are extremely common types of cancer, and rarely ever require any more treatment than removal from the skin.



    9 Nov 12 at 9:33 am

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