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Why is it that every single organ and component of the human body gets cancer except the heart? I have heard about cancer of everything from the brain to the blood; it seems no appendage is safe from the ravages of the big C. Yet I have never heard of anyone getting heart cancer. Am I merely medically ignorant or does the big love muscle have a secret weapon? --Peter Scott, Burbank, California

We'll get to the big love muscle next week, Peter. For now let's stick to the heart. Cardiac tumors are rare, but they do occur, usually when cancer spreads from some other part of the body. These so-called metastatic tumors are 20 to 40 times more common than primary tumors--that is, cancers that start in the heart. Of the handful of primary tumors, two-thirds, such as your myxomas and rhabdomyomas, are benign, at least in the sense that they won't spread and destroy the heart all by themselves. They can block blood flow, however, or cause arrhythmias or other abnormalities, so when a tumor is discovered the standard procedure is to cut the thing out, benign or not.

The heart isn't alone in being relatively immune to primary tumors. Muscle cancers in general (the heart is basically a muscle) are fairly rare. Nobody knows for sure why this is so, but, unconstrained as we are by any sense of scientific responsibility, we can make a few plausible-sounding guesses. The most common types of cancer are adenocarcinomas, i.e., cancers of the glands, glands being the parts of the body that secrete something. Glandular cells tend to have a higher turnover rate than other types of cells and for that reason are more prone to cancer, since some sort of mistake in cell replication presumably is what causes a tumor to start. (I'm also tempted to say glandular cells are more exposed to carcinogens in the environment, but the Science Advisory Board tells me this would be a rash oversimplification. Ordinarily I consider this a plus, but I'm trying to be good.) Muscle-cell turnover is much less than that of glandular cells, so cancer has less chance to get started.

Still, cancer of the heart can happen in a big way on occasion. Doctors once removed a 4,800-gram cardiac tumor--more than ten pounds--from a patient. Getting the occasional lump in your throat is one thing, but if you've got one the size of a grapefruit and it just sort of sits there, you might want to have it checked out.

FROM ONE CULTURAL ICON TO ANOTHER

I've enjoyed your column for many years and was delighted to see a Firesign Theatre reference October 7. [A reader inquired why the porridge bird lays her eggs in the air.] For your information, the famous Zen question or virus which breaks the computer in our record "I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus" actually comes from a lovely woman named Angel I dated back in the 60s. She's from Texas, and claims that when she was a little girl a leprechaun appeared in her backyard one day while she was playing, asked her that exact question, and then laughed and ran away! I've always interpreted the query as referring to the ecological challenge that faces the planet: to wit, the steady loss of trees in which many birds are wont to nest. But it's obviously open to many interpretations, as is much of our work. --Phil Proctor, Beverly Hills, California

Well, that clears that up. Now if we can figure out why there was hamburger all over the road in Mystic, Connecticut, we'll really start making some progress.

SHOPPING TIPS

Your columnist promised the management that he would refrain from blatant commercial huckstering, which detracts from the dignity and class that are the Straight Dope's hallmark. But Christmas is coming. And we do have this outstandingly great book out called Return of the Straight Dope. And if you gave said book as a present you'd be sure to make someone very happy, namely me. But I'll bet the recipient would get a big kick out of it too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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