This week I’ve been knee-deep in cancer cells. Not literally. Hopefully that’s all in the past. But to fully equip myself against a recurrence, I’m swatting up on cellular biology. Turns out that cancer cells are properly clever. They’d make a great Bond villain. Normal cells age and die. They know when their time has come when little strands on the tips of their chromosomes get too short. These get a wee bit shorter each time the cell copies itself. They’ve most definitely been burning their candles at both ends.
Cancer cells found a loophole. They produce an enzyme that tells the strands to stay long. The ageing and dying gets stopped in its tracks and the cancer cell is, in essence, immortal. Cue microscopic maniacal laughter.
The cancer cell also has minions. It recruits red blood cells to its plot, thus providing itself with an endless supply of nutrients. Traitorous little erythrocytes. It couldn’t do what it does without the help of surrounding stromal cells either. If they didn’t send the right signals to grow, grow, grow and consequences be damned, the cell wouldn’t get far. Basically you need a bit more going wrong than just the original cell going bad.
To get a much needed break from my immersion in cancer biology, I went to town with Lilah to buy fabric for a dog-themed cushion cover and a Star Trek uniform (original series of course). On the bus in, a woman in her sixties sat near us and we made the odd smiling comments directed at Lilah’s cute activities. After a couple of these she rocketed into her statement of “I’ve just finished 15 days of radiotherapy.” To which Lilah excitedly added, “My Mummy did radiotherapy too!”
The woman nodded knowingly and I realised she must have picked me up on her rads-dar. Even though my hair is long enough to be an image choice, I must have some kind of look, perhaps around the eyes, of someone who recently got radiated for their own good.
Anyhow, the woman recited her cancer playbook. I listened and told her the highlights of mine. It didn’t matter that we sped through it or used shortcuts. She knew what each phrase meant. The size of the experience behind them. When she got up to leave, she held up her hand inviting a high-five. She said, “I guess we’re both survivors.” I find high-fivving awkward and extremely un-British. Adam has struggled fruitlessly for years to convert me. To be confronted by an older woman demanding I return her gleeful celebratory hand slapping should have been most unsettling. I didn’t hesitate. It was the most natural thing in the world to reach up and slap that stranger’s palm. It brought beaming smiles to the two of us and all the people around us on that bus. I hope it brings one to you too, my friends.