Top critical review
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Chaotic and kaleidoscopic.
on 20 October 2013
I had high hopes for this book. It got some good reviews in the heavier weeklies, and the subject deserves a new, wide ranging treatment. All we get in the media are pharma press releases and their attendant post code lottery stories. Nice, I thought, to get an overview.
And the book does give some very deep insights about origins:
Cancer isn't a disease - it's natural, and a condition which all multicellular organisms can experience, way back to the dinosaurs. "The price of evolution"
It results from a combination of cell mutation and cell division; there are a lot of similarities to the way bacteria behave when they're faced with a stress agent like an antibiotic.
Apart from the chemicals in tobacco or marijuana smoke, there is very little evidence to support the assertion that chemicals in food or the environment cause cancer: one exception is alcohol and cancers of the mouth or throat. Similarly there isn't a good link between radiation and cancer, except for very high doses which have a local effect. All these things may cause increased mutation, but mutation on its own doesn't lead to cancer.
A cancerous growth has a very difficult time establishing itself in a body: it benefits if we encourage it.
Cancer can be encouraged by factors which enhance cell growth: hormones especially oestrogen; insulin (which is why obesity and diabetes lead to higher incidences.
The statistics suggest that the incidence of cancer is not increasing unusually. We just don't die of other causes.
There's other good stuff, too. I really enjoyed the description of large science conferences: the poster sessions resemble the souks of Marrakesh, long interwoven corridors of goodies, and students waitng to pounce to tell you about them. The plenary sessions are like the square in the evening, evryone crowds round to hear the story tellers. And the annotations are comprehensive.
But I found the book unstructured and therefore hard going, and I'm a professional scientist. It jumps about and lacks an overall routemap. It could do with better signposts.
And I suspect that it will disappoint many readers, who might be looking for guidance on treatment, or a sharing of experience about the emotions of having the condition. This is a brave attempt to grasp the whole of the subject. Unfortunately the author isn't up to it.
Possibly someone should ask Steve Jones to have a go at it.