"Magic" cancer

An oft-used device in fiction is the “useful” cancer, that is to say a cancerous tumour that happens to improve functionality in an organ rather than kill the host dead. Or, often, both : the untreated tumour will be fatal in X months, but in the meantime the patient has “super cancer powers”.

Is anything like this possible ? Assuming the increased pressure from the cancerous tumour doesn’t crush everything around it, would it be conceivable that, by a freak coincidence or something like that, the haywire cells also happen to be set up “right” instead of in a chaotic mass ? And if so, would/could they do anything, or just spend 100% of their time duplicating ?

Sounds like a good plot line for House

Kobal2, could you provide some examples of stories that use this plot device? Is it sort of like a Daredevil thing - he’s blind, so his other senses are improved to a superhuman degree? That seems kind of difficult to apply to cancer.

“Chaotic mass” is pretty much the definition of cancer. The cells are damaged and their division is out of control.

Protagonist has brain tumor that grants him enhanced intelligence and telekinesis.

I can’t imagine this could happen in real life, but as they say, ‘who knows’?

I’d blissfully forgotten that movie, which was some of the sappiest garbage I’d ever seen. Oh well. Anyway the Phenomenon version of the story relies on the old “people don’t use their whole brain” myth, which has been shot to hell many times on this site and others. And the tumor in that movie causes telekenesis, which isn’t so realistic either.

I suppose a tumor could cause a large number of neurons to fire at once. That 's abnormal. Maybe you’d call it improved functionality in a manner of speaking. It’s more brain activity, right? Of course in common terms, that’s called a seizure, and it’s usually seen as a bad thing, because… it is.

Well, at the risk of being truly distasteful - cancer patients often suffer anorexia. A morbidly obese person with cancer might, I suppose, enjoy a brief net gain in health if their cancer caused them to lose weight before itself incapacitating them. Maybe.

I am not, in any way, shape, or form, a doctor. Or other medical professional. I don’t even like surgery shows on TV! I change the channel.

To paraphrase Fred Hoyle, a useful cancer would be about as likely as a tornado moving through a junkyard and putting together a 747.

Henrietta Lacks’s cancer was very useful; sadly, just not useful to her.

I suspect it’s directly equivalent to the standard comic book story in which radiation causes super powers. Radiation mostly causes cancer in real life. So, once you establish the “radiation=superpower” trope, it isn’t such a leap to “cancer=superpower.”

And the later comic book story has genetic mutation causing superpowers. We also know from real science that genetic mutations are often the cause of cancer. This just reinforces it all - radiation, mutation, cancer and superpower all jumbled up together in the popular imagination.

Losing weight gradually is good news for obese people. Wasting away because you can’t eat, can’t keep food down, or can’t extract nutrients is not good. So, possibly this could be true in a limited fashion for a short period of time, moreso with benign tumors than with cancers.

A tumor on the pituitary gland can cause extreme growth, which could in some sense be beneficial. Think Andre the Giant, for instance.

Of course, Andre the Giant died relatively young due to side effects of his giantism… but yes, for part of his life it helped him make a comfortable living and brought him fame and fortune.

Also, there’s The Dead Zone.

Well-differentiated tumors (technically, not typically “cancers” but they could be) can produce chemicals such as hormones in excessive amounts (for example a pituitary tumor–an example of a tumor which is not usually very malignant, which is why you survive with them so long–as mentioned by Chronos, above). I can’t think of any conditions in which excessive amounts of anything yields a net positive gain. For one thing, it usually takes a combination of chemicals to produce a net benefit. Pure growth hormone excess is an example where the net benfit is not good–giantism in childhood and acromegaly in adulthood, and both lead to an early checkout with multiple problems along the way. Testosterone-producing tumors would be another example of a net-negative effect.

There certainly aren’t any that are going to make you smarter.

The closest real situation to tis that I can think of would be sickle-cell anemia, which gives it’s victims some immunity to malaria. So this chronic disease helps to prevent a more serious disease.

What about a teratoma? I could imagine one having an extra spleen in it or something that would give extra strength in purifying your blood (or whatever spleens do).

Yes, Andre the Giant died young, but in the meanwhile, he had powers and abilities (namely, his extreme strength) far beyond those of normal men. That’s why I said it was beneficial “in some sense”: If it didn’t come with the drawback of early death, I think most folks would agree that being as strong as Andre is a benefit or even a superpower.

Well, for instance one X-Files villain had a brain tumour that let him “influence” people. Somehow. It was never really explained - X-files wasn’t exactly hard science :slight_smile:

And it goes without saying that *that *would be impossible IRL, however I was thinking of a more tame version of this - something like cancer increasing brain size/mass, giving it more neurons to work with, resulting in increased memory, or a savant’s ability with numbers or music, something like that.

I guess a muscle tumour could end up giving more tensile strength as well ? Again, assuming the chaotic cells align just right, and have some basic functionality besides merely multiplying all the time. Which I realize would be highly unlikely… but impossible ? I mean, if the cell growth is truly random, then there must be a chance, no matter how infinitesimal, that is grows right, no ?

This is an important plot device in the epic masterpiece The Adventures of Neoplastic Man.

I’d link to it, but unfortunately I haven’t written it yet. To be honest, the project hasn’t really progressed beyond a Mondrian-themed Halloween costume.

When I was in high school, I read not just one, but two books based on the idea that a freak cancerous tumour could be the source of some kind of immortality formula: “The Hahnemann Sequela” by Harold King and “The [Sixth? Eighth?] Commandment” by Lawrence Sanders.