Breast Cancer, BRCA genes and the The C Word

One crabby baby.

The Pacific Northwest’s cold waters produce some of the most succulent seafood known to man. Just the annual arrival of Alaska’s Copper River salmon makes foodies like me very glad to reside in Cascadia. Along with my fishy favorites of wild halibut, tuna and salmon, there are superb oysters, clams and crab here. Although it is a show stopper on the plate, King Crab comes second to my preferred crabmeat choice, the rich, sweet Dungeness. How did it happen that cancer, a dreaded human disease, came to be named after the crab, a delectable jewel of a crustacean?

For starters we can thank the Greeks. Around 400 B.C. the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates assigned the Greek word for crab (karkinos) to cancerous tumors he observed in his patients. Around 47 A.D., the Greco-Roman medical encyclopedia writer, Celsus, translated the Greek term karkinos into the Latin word for crab, cancer. It became solidified in medical literature about one hundred years later when a prominent doctor described a breast tumor’s vascular structure as being like that of a crab’s legs.

I recall my father telling me once that when he was a child his mother refused to answer his questions about a relative who had cancer. Why? The cancer had occurred below the waist. It simply could not be discussed. The “C word” or the “Big C” is still common parlance for the word cancer even though the disease is not the death sentence it once was. The word itself simply makes people uncomfortable.

I have no bone to pick with the word cancer now that it has been part of my lexicon for so long. What irks me is another “C” word. That word is cure. With all due respect to the laudable efforts of organizations like Komen, it is my opinion that cancer is part of the human condition. As long as human beings are made from cells, those cells will sometimes go haywire and grow out of control. That’s all cancer is. A true cure for cancer will probably never exist.

For those who have a known defect in the tumor suppressor genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, the systems that protect against uncontrolled cell proliferation don’t function normally. While I feel fortunate to have received successful treatment for breast cancer once, my risk for more cancer remains high. I consider myself in remission. Not cured. I remain hopeful that gene therapies and other treatments will continue to improve the odds for the BRCA positive community, but I do not expect that the cute baby in this photo will get her wish anytime soon, if ever.

Crab-like cancer may always be with us and I’m okay with that. I still like eating crab and will keep devouring the tasty critters when given the opportunity, particularly when paired with a fabulous Chardonnay. Just don’t serve me any geoduck. It’s pronounced “gooey duck.” It is the biggest, ugliest, toughest dang clam imaginable. Not every sea creature in the deep blue of the Pacific is a delicacy. Such is life.



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