By Ross Bonander, February 14, 2014
This is a common question that we here at the Lymphoma Information Network hear and see frequently. It is important to address the question often, even if the answer has not changed.
So what causes lymphoma? Nobody really knows.
Now, that doesn’t hold entirely true for every subtype of lymphoma. The most obvious example is that of MALT lymphoma, which normally has an easily identifiable cause: the spiral shaped bacterium Helicobacter pylori. However, MALT lymphoma is the exception not the rule.
Instead, when seeking potential causes of lymphoma, we draw conclusions from epidemiological evidence, conclusions that don’t necessarily apply to everybody. But it is the best that can be done right now.
Normally, if the cause of something is unknown, then the steps needed for prevention would be unknown as well. This is largely the case in lymphoma too, although science has identified some ways of reducing one’s risk of developing lymphoma or developing any cancer.
The Origins of Lymphoma
Cosmologists like Stephen Hawking have, through mathematics, calculated the birth of the universe all the way back to some hundred-thousanth of a second. Maybe further back, I don’t know. But no matter how far back they can calculate an event, what they can’t do is explain why the event occurred in the first place, and the same general thing is true in most cases of cancer.
In other words, it has been established that cancer begins when something goes wrong within a human cell during the cell cycle—the process of cell division– and the result is a cell that has in some way mutated. Normally, those mutated cells do not survive their mutation, either because the mutation has rendered the cell incompatible with life or because the body’s immune system has stepped up and destroyed the cell. In fact, in order for a mutated cell to survive and actually develop into a tumor or at least into a size that can be seen on a CT scan, that cell has to jump through an extended series of hoops, all of them designed to kill it.
The Need to Know
Patients and loved ones always want to know what caused their lymphoma. There is little doubt that their doctors would like to be able to tell them, but in virtually every instance they cannot tell them. Even if the patient is a Vietnam veteran exposed to large amounts of Agent Orange, the best one can say is that it is a possible cause.
Lymphoma, like other cancers, does not have written across its code a memoir of its birth, an identifiable sign that says ‘Benzene Exposure was here’. Lacking such a sign, the causes of most lymphomas will remain a frustrating mystery. As such, true preventive techniques will remain suspect as well.
We want things in life to be neat and tidy and explainable, but in many instances they aren’t, none less so perhaps than what causes cancer.