Cancer: An Introduction

There are only a handful of historical documents that mention diseases even remotely comparable to cancer. Imhotep, the most celebrated of ancient Egyptian medical men, identified a “bulging mass in the breast” of one patient, and even with all of the most powerful pseudoscientific cures at his disposal, that for cancer was expressed in minimal form: “There is none”. A millennium and a half later, the Greeks gave it a name, cancer, derived from the similarity in appearance of one of its forms to Mediterranean crabs. Galen, progenitor of much of Western medical practise straight through to the seventeenth century, linked it to an excess of black bile in the body, yet stated that surgical removal of cancerous tumours could resolve nothing, as black bile was an inextricable component of a body. Balance, not elimination, was his goal.

Though there are certainly exceptions, such as childhood leukaemia, cancer is generally a disease of old age. As the median mortality of even affluent cultures was typically well under the age of 50 prior to the twentieth century, cancer had not yet become as prevalent in society as it is today. Present, yes, but not widely acknowledged; an incurable stigma. Although medicine had certainly improved from its foundations, and took on a rapid pace during the Enlightenment years, nineteenth century doctors still relied on a troubling combination of myth and science for much of their daily work. It took the emergence of anaesthetics and other drugs, as well as powerful new surgical tools, to make the exacting surgeries of cancer removal a possibility. Continue reading

Posted in history, science | Leave a comment

OINK! The Circle of Blood

The year is 1626, the place, London, England. The dining room of William Harvey has been cleared of the evening’s meal, the plates, cups and cutlery safely outside the room. The table has been stocked with cutting instruments, small bowls, and containers filled with quills (only some of them for writing). Save for a handful of stubborn dark spatters, the table is immaculate. A single large pig lies, lashed down and quivering on the table, a stray swine Harvey had picked up earlier in the day. He raises his knife, used only an hour ago to carve the family turkey, and begins to make his first incision. My fellow Toastmasters, and honoured guests, I present to you today a brief glimpse of the world of medicine at the beginning of the scientific revolution.

William Harvey, a physician by trade, has been inspired by the many discoveries being made in this new era of scientific inquiry, but few of these discoveries have so far concerned medical treatment. In this seventeenth century, medicine is still informed almost exclusively by the work of Galen, a second century physician. Fifteen hundred years’ worth of medical doctors have been taught by rote memorization how our bodies function, all derived from examining the corpses of monkeys and orang-utans. They never bothered to – never believed they’d need to – examine actual human bodies. They already know all there is to know: Our health is simply a matter of the balance of the Four Humours, of blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile. The solution to just about every ailment is either a bloodletting, or a purging by emetic or laxative. If a patient gets better, the practise is validated; if the patient worsens, they simply hadn’t purged enough. So the practise goes.

A physician, even one as dedicated as William Harvey, can only learn so much from a corpse. He has studied plenty of them already, but was just one man among the many gathered at the thieves’ gallows each day to collect his specimens. William Harvey wants to know more than just the names and positions of body parts. He wants to know how they work while their owner is still alive. More specifically, he wants to know about blood flow. Where does it come from? Where does it go?

Galen had hypothesized a path for blood, and made the claim that ours is an open-ended system. Food goes in; we digest it in the stomach; it gets passed to the liver, where it is converted to blood; it passes next through our bodies to the furnace of the heart; there, it is incinerated, and we breathe out the waste. This is what doctors were told, and what they knew to be true for millennia. Harvey’s investigations, however, were about to prove them wrong.

The problem with studying blood flow is that it requires a living patient from start to finish. Blood clots very quickly, and the flow of blood has a tendency to cease altogether in the absence of a beating heart. The messy work of bloodletting, of trepanation or amputation almost never falls to the doctors, themselves, who prefer to pontificate in their ivory towers, away from the dirt and filth of the real world. Poorly trained barber-surgeons are instead the prime practitioners of limb-cutting, which they perform in between clients waiting for simple hair trimmings.

William Harvey is among the first to challenge the medical establishment, and performs his vivisections himself. Lacking the support of the universities, Harvey executes his work at home, in the graceful absence of his doting wife. His skill with the knife and phenomenal powers of observation, are all put to the test as he exsanguinates his writhing client. Afterward, he removes the heart from the cooling, and now still, porcine patient, and weighs it and whatever remaining blood he can squeeze out. He traces what paths he can of the veins, and notes the direction of the valves within. Two years from now, he will publish his results in Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals), and describe the reality of the human circulatory system. Decades more will pass before Galen is finally removed from the medical universities, but scientific truths are, eventually, inescapable.

[Toastmasters: The Entertaining Speaker Series. Speech #1.]

Posted in close to home, education, history, science, short story, speech | Leave a comment

Early Blood Transfusion

The early years of the scientific revolution, humanity’s first poke at addressing the real world sans our traditional superstitious blinders, were not nearly so wholly embraced with the urgency we might today expect. Seventeenth century medicine was still informed exclusively by the work of Galen, second century Greek polymath, whose interpolations and extrapolations of monkey anatomy were the source of his ideas on what goes on within the human body. Fifteen hundred years’ worth of medical doctors were taught by rote memorization our inner workings, and haughty defences of Galen over the new era of inquiry were proudly lauded by the entrenched medical establishment. They never bothered to – never believed they’d need to – examine actual human bodies. Continue reading

Posted in education, history, politics, science | Leave a comment

On “This Changes Everything”

Every decade or so, Naomi Klein produces a massive work, analyzing something of particular importance to the sociopolitical realm in Western culture. Her newest book, “This Changes Everything”, concentrates on the sociopolitical realities of climate change. It is not a comforting read, despite her assurances that climate change can be used to enact the positive changes long desired by the liberal progressives. Scientists, she says, have set 2017 as the deadline before which we must begin cutting emissions at a fantastic rate if we are to have any hope of preventing the 2ºC rise in temperature before the end of the century. As with her previous books, she promotes social, grassroots movements to confront and change the powerful, but this time it’s not just political or corporate organizations that need to change; it is our own view of how we fit and interact with the natural world. Continue reading

Posted in politics, science | 1 Comment

Letting Go of Superman

I was asked, once, to name someone I consider a hero and why. It was not, and is not, an easy question to answer, because I am pretty much the antithesis of a traditionalist. I am a secular humanist. An iconoclast. An idealist. I neither believe in the fabled “rugged individual”, nor the “self-made man”. I am not the kind of person who believes in the supremacy of an individual over everyone else. I know no reason to think of people as anything but equal in every way that matters. We are not special, little snowflakes, we are instead all part of a single, swirling, spiralling snowstorm sweeping ceaselessly across the planet. It is that force, all our strengths combined, united, that I find inspiring. I celebrate humanity as a whole, and freely embrace the freakishly brilliant, the brilliantly freakish and everyone in between.

Continue reading

Posted in art, close to home, speech | Leave a comment

GMOs: An Ancient Practice, Refined

Granny Smith apples. Chiquita bananas. Golden Retrievers. Mice that glow in the dark. Every last one of them are genetically modified organisms. While it’s true that most of them took multiple generations to become what they are, all of them were artificially selected and bred by humans. We identified a trait we liked, whether based on appearance, taste or behavior, and we then ensured its owner’s reproductive success.

People have made their mark on this planet’s history in many ways, and sometimes we forget that a great many species of plants and animals bear that stamp in their genetic heritage. Many people believe that advanced research into GMOs and their potential role in our diet is frightening, unnatural, and dangerous, and that they ought to be banned outright for those reasons. I will not dispute that there are complications when it comes to political and corporate control over GMOs. The core research, though, the basic study of genetically modified organisms should, however, continue apace.

The fear of GMOs has been seeded in popular culture for almost as long as we’ve researched them. Consider the term “Frankenfood”. It’s an emotionally manipulative term, and an enormously successful one. Claims that GMOs cause cancer, or that they destroy stomach linings or trigger severe allergies, are all over the internet. It’s easy to find them. The sites that attack GMOs are, however, notoriously self-referential, and they enthusiastically emphasize horrific results — that turn out to be false or misleading — while ignoring positive ones. Scientists are as human as anyone else, and bad studies can still leak through peer review. These are usually caught and later retracted, but once the study is published, it is, as they say “out there”.

Fear is everywhere, and its purveyors, legion. But we can fight that fear by taking a good look at the arguments from the other side. We can develop a better understanding of what GMOs actually are, rather than forever rely on a straw man caricature to argue against. So what are the scientists actually saying about their work?

Biologists have been studying this area for over a century, and the fruits of their labors have only just begun to ripen. Not only have they discovered what individual genes do, but scientists are now able to mix and match them across species. All living organisms use the same language, that of DNA. Once inserted, a gene will go on to instruct the development of precisely the same molecule that it did in its parent organism. By the time a GMO is in production, scientists know full well the effect of that molecule on the hybrid.

Is this a “natural” process? Think of it this way. If something does exist, or it can, it is, by definition, “natural”. The question of whether a GMO is “good” or “bad” can only be addressed on a case-by-case basis. After all, any technology can be used for good or ill. Would you ban the existence of hammers, or nails, simply because they might be used for nefarious purposes?

Ultimately, GMO researchers are engaged in the very same process that we have performed since our earliest days of farming and ranching. The only real difference is that we can now describe the process of genetic modification much more accurately, and work with it much more effectively.

There are numerous success stories in GMO production, from virus-, bacteria- and drought-resistant crops, to a new form of rice that contains vitamin A, to bacteria from which we can create biodegradable plastics that eliminate the need for fossil fuels. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what GMOs can (and might) offer us. They are neither frightening, unnatural nor inherently dangerous, but fascinating, exciting and resplendent of possibilities.

** The video recording of this speech can be downloaded from my GMO Dropbox Link **

Posted in education, history, science, speech | Leave a comment

A Forgotten Medium

The last fifteen years has seen an explosion of films related to the much-beleaguered medium known as comic books. While the medium itself has its roots in ancient history, most of us still think of them in terms of the superhero or the newspaper “funny” pages. Superheroes undoubtedly receive more press than any other genre in comics, but it is far from accurate to proclaim the inferiority or disingenuousness of a medium strictly due to its loudest messengers.

Continue reading

Posted in art, close to home, education, speech | 1 Comment