Updated: Nov 23, 2019
To understand why cancer in the heart is extremely rare, we must first understand what cancer is. Cancer is a metabolic disease, which means that it occurs when there is a breakdown in normal metabolism that in turn causes shifts in the cell that result in it becoming cancerous. Way back in the 1920’s Otto Warburg and his team discovered that cancer cells stopped relying on what is called oxidative phosphorylation, the main way our cells make energy, and instead relied on what is called glycolysis and lactate fermentation.(r) This is called the Warburg Effect. It basically means that instead of using oxygen to make energy the cells found a way, or were forced to find a way, to make energy without having to use oxygen.
More recently, metabolic researcher Dominic D’Agostino and cancer researcher Dr. Thomas Seyfried have solidified the metabolic theory of cancer. (r,r) Let’s get a better understanding before we move on to the heart. If we look at cancer cells, they have some interesting characteristics. They are anaerobic, meaning they don’t use oxygen, they are acidic, they are rapidly dividing, and they are undifferentiated, meaning they are no particular type of cell but just a general cell. (r) So, we have cancer cells that display this Warburg Effect and have these unique characteristics. But why would the cell decide to have these characteristics and become cancerous? Let’s illustrate this another way.
When a human in conceived the egg and sperm come together to form a zygote cell. That cell implants itself on the side of the uterus. At this point, the cell has no blood supply and therefore no oxygen. Initially this cell grows into what is called a Morula, and then a blastocyst, by rapidly dividing to start the process of growing a fetus. Interestingly, these early dividing cells are anaerobic, (r) undifferentiated, and rapidly dividing. Sounds like cancer. Once the blood supply from the placenta develops are around the 2-week mark, the cells of the fetus start to use oxygen and become aerobic, they start to differentiate into different types of cells, and they have more controlled cell division. The key here is the presence of oxygen.
The question when it comes to cancer is why a cell stops using oxygen and become cancerous. Well, the structures in our cells that allow our cells to use oxygen to break the chemical bonds in our food to make energy for our bodies are called our mitochondria. These structures are very good at oxidative phosphorylation, provided they do not become damaged. Every time our mitochondria make energy we also make a waste product called a free radical, kind of like a car makes and exhaust when burning fuel. These free radicals can be damaging to our bodies if not taken care of. Normally, our bodies make what are called antioxidants that immediately take care of these free radicals.
However, if we are not careful how we live our lives then we can end up creating an abundance of these free radicals that can overwhelm the cells. Excess free radicals can be caused by toxin exposure, (r) relying on carbs for fuel, (r) inflammation, and high blood sugar. (r) When this happens, it can cause damage to the mitochondria. (r) Since the mitochondria are what allow us to us oxygen to make fuel now the cell cannot use oxygen anymore. If it can’t do this, it can’t survive. This triggers the cell to turn on oncogenes in the DNA of the cell that instruct the cell to become anaerobic, undifferentiated, and rapidly dividing cancer cells, the only thing it knows how to do to survive. When faced with the situation of not being able to use oxygen the cells must either die or become cancerous. It’s sort of a survival mechanism. The cancer solution keeps the tissue alive short-term, but it is