Cancer in Animals: What We Can Learn From the Animal Kingdom

The Big “C”. Most of us have been affected by cancer; either we have lost a loved one or, if we’re lucky, we have witnessed a friend survive after the dreaded diagnosis. After all, the lifetime risk of developing cancer is just shy of 40%.

If you’re a long-time puppy or kitty parent, you also know that our furry friends are at risk for developing cancer, too. But outside of our domestic animal companions, in the wild world beyond, is cancer still a thing? It certainly is, and we can learn a thing or two from seeing how and where it affects wildlife.

Stress

Humans get stressed, our animal companions get stressed, and wild animals get stressed. One of the most famous animal stress studies was done by Robert Sapolsky, who discovered that baboons, which live in a rigidly hierarchical social structure, experience severe stress related to their place in the troop. Low-status baboons had higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and were more prone to stress-related diseases. In fact, all primates are particularly prone to being physiologically affected by stress, maybe because primate species, including humans, live highly social lives. Those social ties come with a lot of thinking and worrying about relationships, status, and the negotiations involved in both.

What we can learn from this is that a) the cost of not dealing with and eliminating stressors where possible could actually kill us, and b) marginalized groups needmore support and allies sinceeverything from policies hurting those in or near poverty to the threat of deportation to the threat of bigotry and violenceharms our fellow humans and citizens by immediately and cumulatively impacting their health.

Environmental Toxins

Marine biologists noticed beluga whale populations in the St. Lawrence Estuary, near Quebec, were struggling. Despite protections against hunting for the threatened species, the population remained low. It turned out they were being poisoned by toxic dumping from local aluminum smelters. The contaminantscaused high cancer rates. This is not the only wild species suffering from high cancer rates tied to environmental toxins.

Where this should really concern us is that the toxins affecting the whales are being carried up the very same foodchain which we are a part of. Not just overt chemical dumping but incidental sources of eventual water pollutants all over the world get into our seafood and eventually into our stomachs. It is not a matter of if but how much our cancer risk has increased over the decades and centuriesas a result of waterborne, soilborne, and airborne toxins produced by our own human industries.

Genetic Factors

Elephants rarely get cancer, which is strange for a number of technical reasons. Understanding the genetic effects on cancer risk could provide future treatments and preventatives if, as just one example, we understood the mechanisms of these genes well enough to create pharmaceuticals that mimicked their effects. Donate to your hard-working cancer research organizations, folks. Lobby all levels of government to fund science. There are some real leads that are worth chasing down here.

Lifestyle Factors

This could be an entire article in itself. From smoking to high-fat diets to lack of exercise to failing to protect ourselves from UV radiation when out in the sun, there are a lot of lifestyle factors that can impact our cancer risk. It turns out that some fish get a cancer that is very similar to human skin cancer, and the suspected culprit is UV radiation, with an assist from the depleted ozone layer. So it’s worth making as many lifestyle changes as we can to mitigate these dangers. Of course, that can be easier said than done, as poverty can affect our nutritional choices, access to effective healthcare (including cancer screenings), even our ability to choose healthier jobs. I’m thinking of coal miners here, whose families would probably be better served if they were transitioned into a green economy instead of a resurgent, artificially propped up coal industry.

I hope one of your takeaways is that cancer is scary but not unstoppable, especially if we get smarter about environmental, health, and science policy. So maybe let’s do that?

Photo credit: premier.gov.ru

49 comments

Leo C
Leo Cabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Callie R
Callie Rabout a month ago

Thank you.

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Amanda M
Amanda Mabout a month ago

Thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda Mabout a month ago

Thanks for sharing

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Brandy S
Brandy Sabout a month ago

Thanks.

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Laura R
Laura Rabout a month ago

Thank you.

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Berenice Guedes de Sá
Berenice Guedes de Sáabout a month ago

Thanks for sharing!!

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S J
S Jabout a month ago

Thank you

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Lorraine A
Lorraine Andersenabout a month ago

thanks for sharing

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Carole R
Carole Rabout a month ago

Thanks for posting.

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