the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Kimi Weng ’24
You have encountered someone who has suffered from cancer, even if you don’t happen to know it.
I interviewed Mr. Tony Griffith about his tragic experience last year. For those of you who do not know what happened to him, Mr. Griffith had a tumor the size of a softball in his neck in the winter of 2022. He has been diagnosed with a small cell carcinoma of an unknown origin. This uncommon cancer usually forms in livers, brains, or bones, but rarely in the neck. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. In 2020, more than 600,000 people in the United States died of cancer. However, what is cancer and why is it so deadly?
When we copy a text, it is fairly easy to make mistakes. Cells do the same with genetic information when they are growing; they make mistakes too. Sometimes these small mistakes, or mutations, could lead to serious problems in your body.
Cancer is one of the biggest problems caused by these little mistakes. Sometimes, the mutations cause the cells to become able to grow without the appropriate growth signals from your body, transforming them into dangerous cancer cells that replicate uncontrollably. Cancers develop in organs that range from the pancreas, breasts, prostates, and lungs. As the cancer cells grow, they form a clump, and as it grows bigger, it becomes a lump, known as a tumor. This growth of cancerous cells created the tumor in Mr. Griffith’s neck, but doctors were unable to determine the site where these cells originated from.
Think of cancer cells as kids in a kindergarten: when there is only one out-of-control kid, the teacher, your immune system, can take care of it. But when more and more out-of-control kids come together to form an unruly group, it becomes difficult to control them, especially when these kids can pass themselves off as regular, good kids. These kids can also go to other classrooms to spread their “madness.” Sounds pretty scary, right? The spread of cancer cells through blood vessels into other parts of the body is called metastasis. The tumor in Mr. Griffith’s neck was a result of metastasis.
Cancer is so deadly because when cells multiply, they demand more and more nutrients from the body, and cancer cells take a lot of nutrients to support their growth. Eventually, the large concentration of cancer cells begins killing nearby healthy cells for more nutrients, disrupting regular organ function. When metastasis occurs, cancer cells most likely end up in the lung, resulting in a lack of oxygen and lung destruction. “[Cancer] lives desperately, inventively, fiercely, territorially, cannily, and defensively — at times, as if teaching us how to survive. To confront cancer is to encounter a parallel species, one perhaps more adapted to survival than even we are” — Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies
Thanks to modern technological advances, there are many different ways to treat cancer. Cancer surgery is the most common cancer treatment, and it involves removing the tumor inside your body. However, if the cancer cells have metastasized, it becomes difficult to excise them from all parts of the body.
Fortunately, there are still ways to address metastasized cancers. Mr. Griffith's treatment consisted of two common methods: chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses powerful chemicals to kill cells that are growing fast in your body; Radiation therapy mainly uses X-rays to kill cancer cells, but during this process of radiation, healthy cells that were surrounded can also be impacted. The killing of these otherwise healthy cells has strong side effects; Mr. Griffith had lost his taste and became so weak that he needed blood transfers during the therapy. It took Mr. Griffith three weeks of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation therapy to successfully suppress the tumor in his neck. By March 2022, doctors managed to remove the tumor in his neck and he was cancer-free. To ensure that the tumor has not reappeared, Mr. Griffith has to do a PET/CT scan every three months.
Next time when you find out that someone around you had cancer, please acknowledge the painful process they have been through and be sympathetic towards them.