Hackers, computer aficionados who know how to “game” algorithms, have been causing endless concerns and damage to sites on the internet, but now we know there’s a different type of hacker, and it can mean potential death to us; cancer does the hacking. The find has provided new insight into cancer, especially in children, and its method of invasion of the body was previously unheard of in research.
In 2024, about 9,620 children in the U.S. under the age of 15 were estimated to be diagnosed with cancer. Each year, about 400,000 children are diagnosed with cancer around the world, and in the U.S., now about 15,780 children between the ages of birth and 19 are diagnosed with cancer. Childhood cancer is a worldwide problem; about 44% of cases are not diagnosed. The overall 5-year survival rate for childhood cancer, however, is close to 80%.
When a child has cancer, their family has to pay a significant amount of money for diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care. One study found that four main things contribute to these costs: having to travel for treatment; losing money because a parent loses their job or is laid off; having to pay for treatment out of pocket; and not being able to use assistance programs to help or replace lost income. For these families, their child, who needs treatment, results in an inordinate upset in every aspect of their lives.
If cancer is affecting so many children, what might be the cause? Now we have new information on how cancer utilizes a child’s body’s development in the nervous system to bend it to the purpose of disease, disability, or death. It all comes down to the way our nervous system develops, and therein lies the backdoor to diseases, like cancer.
As I’ve indicated previously, our nervous system is like a series of highways that push out in interconnecting networks to control everything we do, think, feel, or don’t feel, such as those automatic actions of breathing, the heart beating, blood pressure, etc. The most vital structure, which is the highway, runs like a cable (the axon). What cable could do any work if its electrical transmission wasn’t protected? Herein lies the culprit or victim of cancer: the Schwann cells.
Axons are covered by individual Schwann cells that wrap around them like the layers we see on onions. Made of fatty material, they protect the axon and facilitate its work, moving electrical charges even faster via tiny spaces between each of these cells (the node of Ranvier).
The Schwann cell plasma membrane is very high in lipids, and cholesterol is especially important for putting together the myelin sheath. Working together, the Schwann cells, the myelin sheath they create, and the nodes of Ranvier protect and help with transmission. Think of it like microscopic links of sausage, if you wish.
But cancer doesn’t limit itself to just the axon because it is found in the areas where axons connect with others (synapses), and cancer is forming its connections to integrate into the nervous system, especially the brain. These tumor cells in the brains of children, especially gliomas, have an inordinate ability to tap into normal nerve developmental connections in a manner that permits them to thrive and grow within the system. A child’s growth, therefore, is an opportunity for cancer, and it seizes it.
The most dangerous thing about high-grade gliomas is that the cancer cells spread into healthy brain tissue, joining the tumor to the healthy brain tissue. This helps explain why gliomas are so hard to treat. They are so sneaky—they become part of the brain. But there are even more discoveries being made about these cancers that have shocked researchers.
Gliomas change brain circuitry to suit their own needs by taking over the brain’s neuroplasticity through synaptic remodeling and changing the brain’s architecture. Thought and the mind’s activity through speech mechanisms also seem to help the tumor grow, showing an unexpected link between the mind and the brain.
It had not occurred to scientists that cancer cells, even those in the brain, could talk to each other in this way. The tumor’s constant electrical contact may have been helping it to live or even grow. It is changing the way cancer research is proceeding, and the discoveries present new evidence for hope that medications may, in some way, disrupt these cells’ ability to communicate and grow.
Today, cancer neuroscience is a new area of medicine that grew out of the findings. Now the search begins to beat cancer at its own game and save lives through our new understanding and the development of treatments for it.