How does untreated cancer actually kill someone

"I didn't get this cancer for free"

"Take care of your affairs," said the doctor to Patricia. Three months earlier, the then 32-year-old primary school teacher had all metastatic lymph nodes removed from her armpits. Now the oncologist had again discovered cancer cells in the tissue of the surgical scar. The prognosis for the young mother: pretty bad.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 9.6 million people died of cancer worldwide in 2018. The disease is usually fatal, especially in poor countries.

Patricia survived her illness. And not only that: when she looks back, she has the impression that her way of life has maneuvered herself into her misfortune.

In fact, according to the WHO, 30 to 50 percent of all cancers could be avoided. Risk number one: tobacco. This is followed by alcohol and obesity. The organization also names infections, pollution and ionizing radiation as carcinogenic.

Can the soul cause cancer?

Patricia also mentions something else: the psyche. "With my attitude towards life, I created this fate for myself to a certain extent," she says. She attached little value to herself, was pessimistic and fearful. "One thought was always that something bad would happen at some point."

Cancer as a self-fulfilling prophecy? Can a troubled psyche serve as a breeding ground for cancer? "That is an extremely exciting question from a scientific point of view," says Professor Christian Albus, head of the clinic and polyclinic for psychosomatics and psychotherapy at the University Clinic in Cologne.

The question of whether and to what extent the psyche allows cancer to flourish has been discussed intensively in psychosomatic research. "There are indications of this in individual cases. However, this hypothesis does not stand up to scientific testing," explains Albus. Studies with larger groups have shown that the group of cancer patients before the onset of the disease was not fundamentally more negative about life than people without later cancer.

When it comes to dealing with the disease, however, it is of great importance whether the patient is blaming himself for his cancer. "Some feel deeply guilty about believing that cancer shouldn't have developed if their attitudes toward life had been different," says Albus.

 

In the beginning there was shock

Patricia, on the other hand, came to a different conclusion: "If I have something to do with the fact that I have got cancer, then I can turn it around again." She saw the serious illness as an opportunity to review and change all attitudes towards life. However, it took several years until she got to this point.

Years the young mother spent in shock. She felt incapable of participating in life, gripped by the fear of lurking death. She refused chemotherapy or radiation. "I thought I was going to die anyway." So why undergo therapies with drastic side effects? However, it is important to her to emphasize that she does not fundamentally reject these treatment methods. "I don't know if I would do it again today."

Growing up with the assumption that psychotherapy was only for crazy people, it was not an option for the young mother to seek emotional support for a long time. The pregnancy with her second child released her from shock.

Patricia started therapy and got to the bottom of the origins of her always fearful nature. She learned to talk about painful experiences like the stillbirth of her first child and the guilt that came with it. She has gradually gained in self-esteem, she says.

Psyche is crucial for the healing process

From a scientific point of view, mental health may have little to do with cancer, but the psychological state of the patient is very important for the course of the disease, says psycho-oncologist Albus. "There is a statistically significant relationship between long-term depression and the likelihood that the disease will take an unfavorable course."

However, the question arises here about the chicken and the egg - which came first? "Are people with a worse course more depressed or do the depressed people have a worse course?" That has not yet been conclusively answered, says Albus.

Despite the extremely poor prognosis, Patricia is still alive. And she is fine. The examinations that she has regularly carried out show her to be healthy. "At some point I have the certainty that the cancer will not come back. Because I have deprived it of its breeding ground."

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    Fate in hand

    A cancer diagnosis always hits hard and unexpected. Almost half of all cancer cases could be avoided. Smoking is to blame for around one in five tumors alone. The toxic tobacco smoke not only causes lung cancer, but also many other types of tumors. Smoking is the most common self-inflicted cause of cancer - but not the only one.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    Being fat can be fatal

    In second place of the cancer triggers: obesity. Increased insulin levels are to blame. They increase the risk of almost all cancers, especially kidney, gallbladder and esophageal cancers. Overweight women also produce more female sex hormones in adipose tissue, making it easier for them to develop uterine and breast cancer.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    Get off the sofa!

    Cancer is particularly common in people who barely move. Long-term studies show: Sport prevents tumors. Because physical activity lowers the insulin level and also prevents fatigue. And it doesn't have to be high-performance sport: just walking or cycling makes a big difference.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    Cancer for the good!

    Alcohol is carcinogenic. It mainly promotes tumors of the oral cavity, the pharynx and the esophagus. The combination of smoking and alcohol is particularly dangerous: it increases your risk of cancer a hundredfold. However, a glass of wine a day is healthy because it supports the cardiovascular system. Anything beyond that should be avoided.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    Unhealthy from the animal

    Red meat can cause colon cancer. The exact reason has not yet been clarified, but long-term studies show a clear connection. Beef is particularly dangerous, and to a lesser extent pork. Consumption increases the risk of cancer by about one and a half times. Fish, on the other hand, prevents cancer.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    Danger from the charcoal grill?

    When grilling meat, carcinogenic substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are produced. In animal experiments, these chemical compounds trigger tumors. This has not yet been clearly proven in long-term studies on humans. Perhaps it is simply the consumption of meat itself that is the evil, not the way it is cooked.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    Avoid fast food

    A diet high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber prevents cancer. In long-term studies, however, researchers have seen that a healthy diet has less influence on the risk of cancer than originally assumed: It only lowers the risk slightly, by a maximum of ten percent.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    A lot of sun does a lot of harm

    UV radiation in sunlight penetrates the genome and changes it. The result: black or white skin cancer. Sunscreen may protect against sunburn - but as soon as the skin tans, it has already received too much radiation.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    Cancer from modern medicine

    X-rays damage the genetic make-up. With a normal x-ray, however, the exposure is low. Computed tomography is completely different: you should only undergo it if there are good reasons. Magnetic resonance imaging, on the other hand, is harmless. By the way: You are also exposed to cancer-causing radiation when you travel by plane.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    Cancer caused by infections

    Human papillomaviruses can cause cervical cancer. Hepatitis B and C viruses can cause liver cells to degenerate. The bacterium Helicobacter pylori (photo) lodges in the stomach and can be the cause of stomach cancer. You can get vaccinated against many of the pathogens; antibiotics help against Helicobacter pylori.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    Better than their reputation

    The birth control pill slightly increases the risk of developing breast cancer, but it also greatly reduces the risk of ovarian cancer. Overall, the pill protects more than it harms - at least when it comes to cancer.

  • Avoiding cancer instead of curing it

    A real stroke of fate

    But even if you do everything right - you are never completely immune to cancer. Half of all cancer cases are caused by the wrong genes - or simply age. Brain tumors in particular often develop without external assistance.

    Author: Brigitte Osterath


"Accept the circumstances and turn around. Or die."

Patricia no longer only works as a teacher, she has also founded her own company: "Familienbande". There she offers advice and support to families, children and young people in difficult life situations. The experiences she made during the serious illness and the subsequent therapy help her, says Patricia: "Without the cancer, I would not be where I am now."

Ultimately, for Patricia, cancer was a wake-up call, a catalyst on the way to a better life. Is this just an isolated incident? Definitely not! "It happens a lot," says Christian Albus. When confronted with a serious illness, many people put their concept of life to the test. "Have I set the right priorities? What is really important?" These questions come to the fore, says Albus.

In order to answer them, not every patient has to undergo psychotherapy. At least half of all cancer patients manage the course of the disease with the help of their own social network, says Professor Christian Albus. However, if you need professional support, you can find it from a psycho-oncologist.

Patricia swears, however, on the help of good therapists. Because she suspects the origin of the disease in her negative attitudes towards life, it is only logical for her to start there too. "I am quite sure that every serious illness also contains a message. My job was to accept the circumstances and turn around. Or to die."