Of Mice and Chemo

(25 May 2020)

Oh, Export A. You took my breath away. I smoked like a chimney for forty years or more. Probably more. Looking back, it wasn’t the brightest thing I could have done. It didn’t seem harmful when the deep wisdom and maturity of a typical 14-year old guided my decisions. I had my last cigarette in 2006 while waiting to go to the hospital to have a heart attack checked out.

I mention this by way of pointing out that I never came down with lung cancer. It is the most common long term misery waiting for heavy smokers, but not everyone gets it. As far as I know, genetic factors come into play on top of the general exposure to a carcinogen. Genetics can make some people more susceptible than others to some cancers.

I don’t know why this is, but neither do the people toiling away in laboratories around the world. They’ve tried manipulating genes, but without success. The only thing that might work is time travel. Go back a couple of generations and choose a different set of grandparents.

If we can’t change what’s past, we must do something about the future. The most visible need now is for a COVID-19 vaccine. Pharmaceutical researchers are frantically working on the project. We are essentially shut down until they succeed. Individuals are sheltering in place, small independent businesses are hurting badly, and the big box stores are doing well.

Politicians want to open the country up, and a lot of people are getting worried. I know I am. They still don’t know how many people are coming down with the virus. Ontario numbers are rising. It still hasn’t crested. There could still be a lot more infections. Or not very many. Some days, it’s anybody’s guess. Life is stressful enough worrying about having either cancer or covid. You don’t want both at the same time.

Whenever they do solve the covid virus, and they will, it will be long before they ever come up  with a  cancer vaccine. So far, they aren’t even close. Doctor Azra Raza, the author of The First Cell and the human costs of pursuing cancer to the last, thinks she knows the reason. Or part of it, anyway. It has to do with research methods. Tumours, cancer cells, and new drugs are tested on mice.

I was astonished to learn of some similarities in mice and people. For example, I bet you don’t know that “approximately 97 per cent of human genes have homologues in the mouse genome.” I didn’t. In fact, I had never even heard of a homologue before starting Raza’s book. It seems they are genes that share a basic structure and derive from a common primitive origin. Who would have thought the correct answer to “are you a man or a mouse” would turn out to be “a little bit of both”?  

Mice breed early and often, have lots of pups, and mature quickly, making them near-perfect candidates for experimentation. At least, they would be if it weren’t for some big differences between the two species. One example, Raza says, is that “humans have 70 per cent neutrophils  and 30 per cent lymphocytes, while mice have 10 per cent neutrophils and 90 per cent lymphocytes in the blood.” This is clearly one of the key places where the method flounders.

Mice are not great for cancer research because their cells grow and mutate differently. What’s good for a mouse isn’t so good for us.

Raza mentions a study that set hearts pounding in 1998. Researchers developed two drugs that, simultaneously injected, eradicated tumours in mice. The news quickly spread from medical journals to daily newspapers. People with cancer were ready to mortgage their homes and buy a syringe full of the magic elixir. But the drugs didn’t eradicate human tumours. Just the little mousey ones.The search for a cure went back to genetics, family histories, and environmental causes.

I can’t really blame my ancestors. My family history doesn’t contain a lot of cancer. My dad’s mother had it well before she became my grandmother. She was 46 when she died of breast cancer in 1941.

That was it, until 1997 when one of my nephews, Ruairi Ashmore, died of leukemia. He was 13, a delightful and lovable young lad. There is no pain greater than that felt by a parent watching a child die.

That was it until my dad turned 90. We threw him a party in May, 2009. Friends and family marvelled at how well he was. They were right. He seemed fit as a fiddle. In June, he had severe pain in his legs and the doctor said bone cancer had set in. He died in July. In years gone by, he would have died earlier, of something else.

That ended it, until last year when one of my younger brothers went through treatment for prostate cancer. He’s still with us.

Then, in February, they found a NET on my pancreas. And that, so far, is all the cancer floating in my genetic stream.

I still don’t know how the tumour got there and may never know. Smoking did me harm, but in other ways.

It must have been something my grandmother ate.


  1. Always a fan of your writing,dry humour, insights and revelations…..

  2. Good for you, Al, blaming your (grand)mother. It’s always the mother’s fault. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, thank you for articulating muddled thoughts we have floating around in our heads, in a clear, succinct, and coherent way. Keep up the good work — on your healing journey and taking us along.

  3. For me there’s one big difference between you and a mouse. When you’re in our house we offer tea and maybe a Lego project. When a mouse is in our house we usually end up trapping it.

  4. “When the mouse laughs at the cat, there’s a hole nearby.”
    ― Nigerian Proverb

    May your hole appear.

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