Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage”
-The Smashing Pumpkins, 1995
I read a recent study from my office – a windowless room in the basement of a hospital in Pittsburgh. In the study, scientists took two groups of poor mice, injected them with cancerous melanoma cells, and then sat back and watched as they grew into tumors, measuring how quickly these tumors grew and how rapidly these cells were multiplying.
In group 1, all of the mice eventually developed tumors within 15 days, as the injected cancer cells invaded their tissue, began multiplying rapidly, and eventually formed a palpable cancerous lump.1 However, only 5% of the mice in group 2 developed solid tumors by the third week. When the scientists decided to watch this group for another 3 weeks, only 17% of them experienced tumor growth. Additionally, when they cut these tumors out and viewed them under a microscope, tumor cells from group 2 were multiplying much slower than those of the first group. Furthermore, some of these cancer cells were found to be undergoing apoptosis – cellular seppuku – as these dangerous cells were falling on their own swords and exploding.
What magical substance was the second group given? Was it a new chemotherapy? Immunotherapy? Radiation therapy?
The second group was housed in a cage that was much unlike my subterranean dwelling known as an office. While the first group was kept in a typical cage, the second was housed in an “enriched environment,” that allowed them to run around, play, and frolic. The same research group has even shown that this setup can also help to protect the brain as we (or mice) age.2
My first thought was, “I hate being in an office, but is it actually giving me cancer?” This thought (like the title of this article) may sound extreme, but it is not far-fetched. These mice were injected with tumors, and yes, they were mice. However, we, as humans are constantly experiencing a real risk of cancer, as many of our cells become derailed as they replicate and can threaten a switch to cancerous activities if not kept in check. Our immune system and cellular security guards pluck them out when they detect this change. The thought that this system could be thrown out of whack by my office setup enraged me.
However, despite all my rage, I am more than just a rat in a cage.
While I cannot escape my current situation of an office, nor can many of you reading this, we can break out of the rat in a cage experience to make our work situation foster a cellular environment that helps fight cancer instead of fuel it. For instance, the following are easy steps to add some normalcy and activity to your day:
- Alternate between a standing and seated desk
- Keep kettle bells in your office to swing around periodically
- Keep a blue light nearby to signal to your brain that it is daytime
- Take off your shoes, walk barefoot in your office, and roll your feet with lacrosse balls when sitting at your desk
- Take frequent walks throughout your office/work area
- Take a dedicated walk at lunch, every day
- Get a ping pong table in your office
- Keep green plants in your office (ZZ plants require little water and no sun)
- Always pack your well-prepared lunch
- Engage in actual human relationships with your coworkers
Is your home a cage? This is a much easier fix for most of us, with the following:
- Grow a garden with some anticancer vegetables
- Get a dog
- Take frequent walks in the woods and forest bathe
- Move to a house/apartment with a porch or yard
- Spend as much time outside as possible
- In the winter, visit a local conservatory to be surrounded by green
- Get some hobbies that include getting closer with your food
In the winter months, the lack of sun can be a drag. Some quick hacks for this include:
Are you a rat in a cage? Does your job or home situation make it impossible for you to avoid joining group 1 in the mouse study above? Maybe it is time to change jobs, and maybe it is time to move.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ song ends with “And I still believe that I cannot be saved.” We can all be saved, but get out while there’s still time.
- Cao, L. et al. Environmental and Genetic Activation of a Brain-Adipocyte BDNF/Leptin Axis Causes Cancer Remission and Inhibition. Cell 142, 52–64 (2010).
- Young, D., Lawlor, P. A., Leone, P., Dragunow, M. & During, M. J. Environmental enrichment inhibits spontaneous apoptosis, prevents seizures and is neuroprotective. Nat. Med. 5, 448–453 (1999).
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