Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments

Can Cancer Be Contagious?

The short answer is: yes.  The longer answer is that Tasmanian devils (TDs), those feisty black and white Australian marsupials, are the first to suffer from it. In an enlightening story about the plight of these little guys, I learned that they are prone to a certain type of mouth cancer that they pass to one another through biting. Now, since biting is part of their mating rituals, this cancer has spread through the TD population like wild fire, even putting them at risk for extinction.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s quite fascinating that cancer can be contagious. Sure we know that the human papillomavirus (HPV), for example, can be spread through sexual contact and may stimulate the body to produce cervical cancer cells eventually, but this is a more direct and faster method of transmission. Researchers have found that cancer cells in the mouth of the animal doing the biting slough off in the wounds on the other animal, and the cells grow into a new cancer in the injured animal.

So you may ask – can I get cancer from a TD? Not unless YOU’RE also a TD. The reason why the cancer cells can survive in the victim is because TDs have become so genetically similar to one another that foreign cells from another animal are not recognized and attacked by their immune systems. Human immune systems would recognize the TD cells as foreign and attack and kill them quite quickly.We humans can’t even accept an organ transplant from a family member without being on strong immunosuppressive medications.

Nonetheless, this case of contagious cancer is interesting – and makes me wonder if immunosuppressed humans could one day be vulnerable to developing cancer from another person’s cells. But that risk seems rather remote. For now, we should just feel sad for our furry friends down under. I know that at least Dr. Rob, the llama lover, will understand the grief.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

You may also like these posts

Read comments »

Comments are closed.

Return to article »

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »