Cancer Taboo

Apart from charity ads and specialist articles in scientific periodicals its hard to find products of creative work about cancer. The biology is elusive and there are barriers of complex psychology making it a very difficult subject to follow. The pink ribbon, especially,  helps bring together peoples’ feelings about breast cancer but many others are trapped inside dark metaphors of loneliness, fear and uncertainty.

th-1       cancer2hesssite

(                                                             Cancer of the Soul, D Hess (

Among the more readable of the scientific reviews that I’ve tried are four contributions to this week’s Nature (501, 327-372, 19 September). In particular, MR Junttila & FJ de Sauvage explain the origin and variation of different tumours.


(diagrams copyright Macmillan Journals)

The tumour niche is a dynamic environment with cancer cells in a matrix of blood, lymph and immune cells. The supply of nutrients varies considerably, depending on their origin, environment, blood supply and other stresses, and they all influence how the cancer adapts.

Another article is by CF Meacham & SJ Morrison who explain how tumours vary according to their position in different tissues. A new group of cancer cells grows according to the surrounding tissue. In their diagram it is the purple cells that are fated to become a tumour but their growth depends on the environment:


There’s a long way to go before these unique evolutionary systems can be explained. One anonymous artist did well to show some of the entanglements:

th-4  Myth  (

I’m sure that illustrations and art can play a bigger part in helping those who have the illness, showing them how to understand its place and how to cope with the medical treatments. Art could also make it easier for scientists to help explain what is happening.

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