I remember when Grandpa told us the story about cancer and his fight. I was ten or twelve by then, but I remember well. He spoke slowly, as wise people do, choosing each word very carefully as if scared of saying something that might not be true.
Grandpa epitomised cancer and its progress in medicine, and back in the 40s he was one of the first patients whose medicine regimen responded successfully: he had been very lucky to get the so-called disease. Grandma was not so lucky, and she died of a blood clot around the same time he was diagnosed. She was 94 by then and grandpa just one year older. I live in different times: you don’t need to get cancer naturally, you can acquire it when you’re 22.
I got my mutation last year, just after my birthday. The body starts to naturally decay at about age 20, but they wait two extra years to allow for late-growers. And although I was always the tallest in my year, and although at age 16 I would not grow anymore, science is science and I had to wait. You are thinking, You’re not gonna grow old before you’re twenty. Good point, but if I cut myself, or get a burn or a scratch, I have to wait weeks until it heals completely, not to mention scars and infections. Please.
I became interested in medicine around that time. Back in 1948 Sidney Farber (a laboratory rat by then) and Yellapragada Subbarow (a biochemist) synthesised a folate antagonist (something they called a “remedy”) for children with the worst type of leukaemia: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, or ALL for short. More “medicine” was sure to come, killing cancer cells for many different types: breast, prostate, lung, eye, pancreas, stomach, lymph nodes, ovarian cancer and many more with names I can’t possibly remember. Farber galvanised cancer medicine and although now, almost 150 years later, ALL is still incurable if acquired before you get your mutation, we’ve conquered most of the other cancers and we don’t consider it a disease.
Times have changed, and so has Grandpa. He is now 155, the second oldest human on Earth. Eons ago, when people had to retire, I read they were a nuisance: younger generations had to support their retirement with their taxes, and as the population pyramid began to resemble an inverted cone elders died of hunger because of the lack of government money and support. And that wasn’t the only issue: those minds, with 40 to 50 years of acquired experience, minds that could piece a scientific puzzle together far better than young students, were put in asylums or retirement homes or left to die in their apartments; now they are as active as they have never been, speeding the progress of science five or tenfold.
Mutations changed for the better the landscape of future generations. Grandpa and my brother are very alike, both twenty-odd-looking year-old handsome chaps with half-trimmed beard and sharp brown eyes, who love going for a swim three miles off the coast and sign up for all the popular runs of Flori (where we live) including the marathon, although Grandpa is in much better shape than him. We are good friends, another of the perks past generations don’t got to enjoy because one was too young while the other too old; he always tells me I look just like Grandma when they first met and confessed me he misses her sometimes (still, after more than 50 years), always gives me excellent advice about boys and is now dating a witty 50-year-old paediatrician he met while doing his morning runs. I need to remind myself from time to time that he’s lived four times as long as I have!
2057 was the year. In early February Albert Finn, a 27-year-old biochemist from Southampton synthesised, after 4 years of trial after trial at Bristol University contropadin-2 (or C2), a molecule that created a growth-regulator protein in the cells that transformed cancer cells into benign, growth-controlled ones; and when this fast-reproducing fast-adaptive cells colonised the whole body in a cancer-frenzy style we became what we are today, unaging humans whose cuts heal in minutes. Grandpa (and 391 others) were the first in receiving C2: they had been, for the previous 15 years and on a three-times-a-day basis, injecting themselves contropadin, the earlier version of the new revolutionary drug. But C2 had a nice twist: it was a one-time-only, side-effect-free molecule which ironically resembled in structure to a crab.
By March the whole world was revolutionised: everyone wanted to get C2 and rejuvenate but it only had an effect on patients under C1 treatment or with a positive cancer diagnosis.
You can imagine what happened: smoking rates quadrupled, people camped near nuclear stations, billions of people tried to get an appointment for a CT scan (because of X-rays) and many other “tricks” that are too absurd to mention in the hopes of getting any form of cancer. Hospitals got flooded with people claiming they had lung cancer, skin cancer, lymphoblastic cancer… but all they had were soot-black lungs (from smoking a hundred filter-free cigarettes a day), skin burns (from spending hours and hours sunbathing) and hypochondria with traces of hope. Luckily for them (and for the rest of the world too) they did not have to wait long: in August, just 6 months after Finn’s revolutionary C2, a Norwegian, Caltech-based oncologist named Thor Herzeng managed to artificially insert cancer in humans; Barry Marshall successfully proved in 1984 that some forms of cancer were produced by bacteria and was able to infect mice with it (and himself too, after a rather desperate experiment where he drank an ounce of that brown culture); many others before and after him had been able to induce tumours on rats and other laboratory animals. But we humans are different: with us it couldn’t be tried for ethical reasons, and when we did try it was never successful.
Luckily cancer ethics have changed, new paradigms introduced; Marshall had not been able to experiment with humans for obvious reasons: cancer was a disease, and you couldn’t just go around trying to induce cancer in humans to prove your theory. With C1, and 15 years later with C2, it all changed: getting cancer meant you could get a mutation, and that meant immortality. And when Herzeng managed to induce pancreatic cancer in humans, the news were celebrated worldwide.
You needn’t worry about getting cancer, they could give it to you.