A Brief History of Oncology: DIPG vs Cancer

The earliest recorded form of cancer was breast cancer. According to historians studying the Edwin Smith Papyrus, a copy of an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery, there were eight mentions of breast cancer that were listed as being removed through an application of the “fire drill”. In the profile of the disease, the authors of the textbook wrote “there is no treatment” (American Cancer Society).

The world has come a long way since then. When in 3000 BC, doctors could wring their hands in resignation and say that there is no hope, today’s medical professionals have plenty of options in cancer treatment. From the antifolates discovered by Yellapragada Subbarao in the cold climates of Massachusetts to the radical mastectomies performed by the fanatical surgeon, William Stewart Halsted, cancer medicine has come a long way through decades of continuous research. However, as is the case with greater research, we are also given more knowledge. As the national focus slowly shifted to cancer, it seemed as if the disease, as a whole, was evolving to resemble a hydra: with each head you tackled, two more types were discovered.

The most common cancer type in the modern United States is breast cancer, according to data from the National Cancer Institute. After breast cancer comes lung cancer and prostate cancer. The most important commonality between these cancer types is that they primarily affect adults, specifically older adults that have weakened immune systems. These cancers also affect those with preexisting conditions or those who have smoked or abused substances excessively. DIPG is not like the common cancers, in terms of the demographics it affects. The typical DIPG patient is a child, who is often the victim of genetic happenstance rather than their life choices.

Multiple types of cancer can affect a variety of people. DIPG, in particular, is a nervous glioma. This means that it affects the human nervous system, particularly in the glial cells. The glia of the nervous system works to support the rest of the “essential” nervous tissue. These cells do not produce any electrical impulses, but rather maintain homeostasis, form myelin (a coating around a neuron that accelerates nervous transmission), and protect neurons from damage. In addition to affecting the glial cells, DIPG affects the pons of the brain specifically. The brain’s pons is responsible for controlling motor functions in the facial area, sleep, respiration patterns, and other sensory roles.

What makes DIPG different from other forms of cancer is that it mainly affects children, categorizing it as pediatric cancer. While there are some exceptions (See Jace and Maria), the vast majority of patients with DIPG are children. This is because there are some proven links between DIPG and the formation of the brain in the initial stages of life. As a result, the prognosis for the disease often includes a shorter life expectancy than most other forms of cancer.

Research into pediatric cancers is already underfunded as compared to the more “noticeable” forms of cancer, let alone research into DIPG. The Cristian Rivera Foundation aims to change this by raising awareness about this form of cancer while also funding research. Our goal is to help those families who are currently battling DIPG while also working our way towards a cure. With your help, we are certain that we can get there.

By Aayush Gandhi

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