Why is this important? Because if you understand some of these differences, it will help you to better understand how to fight your cancer via natural means that don't require the use of toxic chemotherapy and radiation.
For true researchers, understanding how cancer cells function differently from normal cells lays the foundation for developing treatments designed to rid the body of cancer cells without damaging normal cells.
From a physical perspective, a cancer cell is characterized by a large nucleus, having an irregular size and shape, the nucleoli are prominent, and the cytoplasm is scarce. A normal cell has a smaller nucleus, has a regular size and shape, and is full of cytoplasm.
Cancer cells often exhibit much more variability in cell size – some are larger than normal and some are smaller than normal. In addition, cancer cells often have an abnormal shape, both of the cell, and of the nucleus (the “brain” of the cell.) The nucleus appears both larger and darker than normal cells. The reason for the darkness is that the nucleus of cancer cells contains excess DNA. Up close, cancer cells often have an abnormal number of chromosomes that are arranged is a disorganized fashion.
From a functional perspective, a cancer cell divides out of control; avoids programmed cell death (apoptosis); invades other cells and tissues; and, is able to move about freely via the bloodstream and lymphatic system. In addition, a cancer cell has a craving for sugar; a disdain for oxygen; a preference for an acidic environment; has stealth ability (to hide from immune cells); can trigger angiogenesis; and, has the ability to recruit and use our cells against us.
On the other hand, a normal cell divides in an organized manner; performs suicide after about 50-60 divisions via programmed cell death (apoptosis); does not invade other cells and tissues; and, does not move about freely in the body. In addition, a normal cell loves oxygen; can trigger angiogenesis during the repair and healing process; and, prefers an alkaline environment.
Although our bodies' cells continue to divide to replace worn-out cells, this happens in a very ordered, systematic way. The reason is that each cell carries genetic instructions that regulate how fast the cell should grow and divide and when the cell should die. A balance between cells growing and dying keeps our bodies functioning normally.
Normal cells stop growing (reproducing) when enough cells are present. For example, if cells are being produced to repair a cut in the skin, when the repair work is done, cells are no longer reproduced to fill in the hole.
Sometimes a cell starts to grow without regard for the normal balance between cell growth and death, and a small, harmless (or benign), lump of cells will form. A benign growth can occur in any part of the body, including the prostate, skin, or intestine.
In other cases, a cell may continue to grow and divide with complete disregard for the needs and limitations of the body. This continued growth often results in a tumor (a cluster of cancer cells) being formed. Cells that have this aggressive behavior are called malignant or cancerous. They have the potential to grow into large masses or spread to other areas of the body. When clumps of these cells spread to other parts of the body, they are metastases. A cancer that continues to grow can eventually overwhelm and destroy the part of the body or particular organ where it is located.
Note: Each gene in the body carries a blueprint that codes for a different protein. Some of these proteins are growth factors, chemicals that tell cells to grow and divide. If the gene that codes for one of these proteins is stuck in the “on” position by a mutation (an oncogene) – the growth factor proteins continue to be produced. In response, the cells continue to grow.
Evading Growth Suppressors: Normal cells are controlled by growth (tumor) suppressors. There are 3 main types of tumor suppressor genes that code for proteins that suppress growth. One type tells cells to slow down and stop dividing. One type is responsible for fixing changes in damaged cells. The third type is in charge of the apoptosis. Mutations that result in any of these tumor suppressor genes being inactivated allow cancer cells to grow unchecked.
Normal cells listen to signals from neighboring cells and stop growing when they encroach on nearby tissues (something called contact inhibition). Cancer cells ignore these cells and invade nearby tissues. Benign (non-cancerous) tumors have a fibrous capsule. They may push up against nearby tissues but they do not invade/intermingle with other tissues.
Cancer cells in contrast don’t respect boundaries and invade tissues. This results in the finger-like projections that are often noted on radiologic scans of cancerous tumors. The word cancer, in fact, comes from the Latin word for crab used to describe the crablike invasion of cancers into nearby tissues.
Normal cells mature. Cancer cells, because they grow rapidly and divide before cells are fully mature, remain immature. Doctors use the term undifferentiated to describe immature cells (in contrast to differentiated to describe more mature cells).
Another way to explain this is to view cancer cells as cells that don’t “grow up” and specialize into adult cells. The degree of maturation of cells corresponds to the "grade" of a cancer. Cancers are graded on a scale from 1 to 3 with 3 being the most aggressive.
Cancer cells don’t interact with other cells as normal cells do. Normal cells respond to signals sent from other nearby cells that say, essentially, “you’ve reached your boundary.” When normal cells “hear” these signals they stop growing. Cancer cells do not respond to these signals.
Normal cells secrete substances that make them stick together in a group and enable them to remain in the area where they belong and do not spread to other parts of the body.
Cancer cells fail to make these substances and because they lack the adhesion molecules that cause stickiness, they may spread through the body (metastasize) in several ways. These include direct invasion and destruction of the organ of origin, or spread through the lymphatic system or bloodstream to distant organs such as the bone, lung, and liver.
Once they arrive in a new region (such as lymph nodes, the lungs, the liver, or the bones) they begin to grow, often forming tumors far removed from the original tumor.
Cell Repair and Cell Death
Normal cells are either repaired or die (undergo apoptosis) when they are damaged or get old. Cancer cells are either not repaired or do not undergo apoptosis.
For example, one protein called p53 has the job of checking to see if a cell is too damaged to repair, and if so advise the cell to kill itself. If this protein p53 is abnormal or inactive (for example, from a mutation in the p53 gene,) then old or damaged cells are allowed to reproduce. The p53 gene is one type of tumor suppressor gene that code for proteins that suppress the growth of cells.
The immune system consists of a group of cells called white blood cells (lymphocytes) that are specialized to recognize and destroy "foreign" material in the body such as bacteria, viruses, and unfamiliar or abnormal cells.
So, when normal cells become damaged, these lymphocytes identify and remove them. In addition, normal cells have a built-in identifier so that the immune cells don't attack our own healthy normal cells.
Cancer cells do not have this identifier, so many of them are destroyed before they can grow and multiply. However, as the years pass and our immune system weakens and is not as alert, it overlooks some of these cancer cells, which evade the immune system and begin to multiply. Also, most cancer cells cover themselves with a protein coating that secretes chemicals that inactivate immune cells by "telling" the immune system cells to leave it alone.
By slipping through this detection system without triggering the immune system to start fighting, this allows the cancer cells to continue dividing and growing at the primary cancer site. Eventually, the cancer cells are able to spread to other secondary sites via the blood vessels and/or lymphatic system.
Cancer cells have a thick, protein fibrin coating designed to protect them from the body’s immune system. The fibrin coating is a “cloaking device” preventing cancer cells from being recognized by the immune system’s white blood cells (e.g. macrophages, neutrophils), and thus making them immune to attack by natural killer cells.
The sticky fibrin coating is ~15 times thicker than the fibrin which surrounds healthy cells. [Egyud LG, Lipinski B. Significance of fibrin formation and dissolution in the pathogenesis and treatment of cancer. Med Hypotheses. 1991 Dec;36(4):336-40].
Angiogenesis is the process by which cells attract blood vessels to grow and feed the tissue. Normal cells undergo a process called angiogenesis only as part of normal growth and development and when new tissue is needed to repair damaged tissue.
Cancer cells undergo angiogenesis even when growth is not necessary. As a result, cancer cells are able to obtain their own blood supply (via tumor angiogenesis), enabling the cancer cells (tumor) to grow, invade more tissue and eventually metastasize.
Normal cells produce most of their energy in the presence of oxygen, whereas cancer cells produce most of their energy in the absence of oxygen.
Normal cells require oxygen in order to produce energy via a process called cellular respiration. Without oxygen, our cells cannot produce the needed amounts of energy that are required to keep us going every day. This energy that our cells produce is called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP for short. Without oxygen, our cells will die.
Cancer cells do not require or like oxygen. Cancer cells produce their energy via a process called fermentation. As a result, cancer cells are able to produce the needed amounts of energy that are required to allow them to grow and multiply.
Normal cells require glucose from the food we eat; and, along with oxygen, our cells are able to produce energy (ATP). Normal cells contain little "garage doors" (insulin receptors) that open up and transport glucose into the cell.
However, cancer cells contain 28 times more "garage doors" than normal cells. As a result, cancer cells are able to absorb 10 to 15 times more glucose than a normal cell. This causes normal cells to starve and cancer cells to flourish.
For every mole of glucose, a normal cell produces 38 moles of ATP. For every mole of glucose, a cancer cell produces 2 moles of ATP. Because cancer cells are less efficient (5%) at producing ATP energy, they require a lot more glucose.
Normal cells do not like an acidic environment because of the lack of nutrients and oxygen. Cancer cells love an acidic environment. In fact, in order to promote their acidic environment, cancer cells internally produce acidic and poisonous mycotoxins that cause damage to the cell's mitochondria and genetic/DNA material. In addition, cancer cells produce lactic acid, as a byproduct of producing energy (ATP).
This lactic acid is secreted into the bloodstream and sent back to the liver, where the liver converts the lactic acid back to glucose. Then, the glucose is returned to the cancer cells to produce energy and more lactic acid, which, again is sent back to the liver.
Note: This vicious cycle is known as the lactic acid or cachexia cycle, which causes the body to slowly waste away. Refer to the blog post titled "Lactic Acid Cycle" for more details.
Cancer cells are positive on the inside and highly negative on the outside due to a heavy fibrin protein coating. Immune cells which carry a negative charge are repelled by the negative charge on the cancer cell's surface.
When a cell becomes cancerous, potassium which has high membrane permeability is pumped out of the cell and sodium enters the cell through the voltage gated ion channels making the inside of the cell potentially positive and the outside of the cell negative by comparison.
Note: At rest, your cells have more potassium ions inside than sodium ions, and there are more sodium ions outside the cell. Potassium ions are negative, so the inside of a cell has a slightly negative charge. Sodium ions are positive, so the area immediately outside the cell membrane is positive. There isn't a strong enough charge difference to generate electricity, though, in this resting state. Human cells are designed to run at about -20 millivolts (or pH of 7.35). As voltage in cells drops, going from -20 mV to zero mV, their physiology becomes compromised.
Nutrients and Compounds
There are various nutrients and compounds that normal cells like but cancer cells do not. Some examples include: chlorophyll, sulfur, alpha linolenic acid (ALA), beta glucan, certain seed extracts, certain herbs such as turmeric and ginger, Vitamins A/C/D/E, ellagic acid, pancreatic enzymes, etc. Refer to the nutrition-related posts for more details.
Normal cells perform the function they are meant to perform, whereas cancer cells may not be functional. For example, normal white blood cells help fight off infections. In leukemia, the number of white blood cells may be very high, but since the cancerous white blood cells are not functioning as they should, people can be more at risk for infection even with an elevated white blood cell count.
The same can be true of substances produced. For example, normal thyroid cells produce thyroid hormone. Cancerous thyroid cells (thyroid cancer) may not produce thyroid hormone. In this case the body may lack enough thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) despite an increased amount of thyroid tissue.
Normal cells are mortal, that is, they have a life span. Cells aren’t designed to live forever, and just like the humans they make up, cells grow old. Researchers are beginning to look at something called telomeres, structures that hold DNA together at the end of the chromosomes, for their role in cancer.
One of the limitations to growth in normal cells is the length of the telomeres. Every time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When the telomeres become too short, a cell can no longer divide and the cell dies. Cancer cells have figured out a way to renew telomeres so that they can continue to divide. An enzyme called telomerase works to lengthen the telomeres so that the cell can divide indefinitely – essentially becoming immortal.
Normal cells have normal DNA and a normal number of chromosomes. Cancer cells often have an abnormal number of chromosomes and the DNA becomes increasingly abnormal as it develops a multitude of mutations. Some of these are “driver” mutations, meaning they drive the transformation of the cell to be cancerous. Many of the mutations are passenger mutations, meaning they don’t have a direct function for the cancer cell.
Summarizing the Differences
As you can see, there are many differences between normal cells and cancer cells. This is a good thing, because it enables researchers to develop counter strategies to fight cancer.
Unfortunately, the majority of researchers who have been successful are those willing to look at non-drug alternative solutions instead of strictly focusing on drug-based solutions. Non-drug solutions cannot be patented or generate a revenue, whereas drug-based solutions have created a multi-billion dollar revenue stream for the medical industry and especially the pharmaceutical industry. As a result, the general public is only made aware of the drug-based solutions from their doctors.