Are We Filled With Tumours When We Die?

A comment made by two morticians in a Bob’s Burgers episode got me thinking and investigating.

Many families have been affected by tumours and cancer, and mine is one of them. My dad developed prostate cancer and eventually died of leukaemia. I know many other people in my circle whose families are affected by cancer. Sometimes it seems like almost everyone I know has been affected by cancer, and that thought saddens me.

I wouldn’t say I think about cancer often, but it crosses my mind enough to research and write an article about how prevalent tumours are in our bodies and what we can do to avoid them.

Case in point, I was watching an episode of the TV show Bob’s Burgers one night when a secondary character named Mort, who is a mortician, implied something that caught my attention:

When a mortician opens up a dead body, the most common abnormality they find are “lots and lots of tumours”.

Photo courtesy of the National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

The writers could have said “lap sponges” or “bugs” or something else that would have provided more direct humour, but they chose “tumours”, which sounded like an all-too-real “joke” and hit a little close to home for me. And not only that but “lots and lots of tumours”.

Maybe some people would’ve just breezed past that remark and perhaps had a little chuckle given the context, but for me, I took a pause and contemplated the remark.

I, and perhaps many other people with a history of cancer in their family, can’t just dismiss things like that without giving it the proper thought and consideration it deserves out of respect for those we have lost.

Perhaps it’s also because the anniversary of my Dad’s passing is coming up at the end of the month that I am writing this. It will be 17 years on June 28. I still think of him often and even more so around this time of year. When someone you love is lost before their time — or any time, really — their memory sometimes creeps into your motivations.

Perhaps it’s because many types of cancer can be hereditary, and the notion that I might get prostate cancer or leukaemia one day is not so far-fetched. My dad died when he was 48. I’m 38.

Perhaps I am writing this because my Mom is a worrier–as most moms are– and a nurse. So when I’m back in town for a visit, she invariably schedules some time for a quick visit with one of her plastic surgeon friends at the hospital to look at some of my moles. I’ve even had a few removed, just to be safe.

Perhaps it's all these reasons that I dove into this uncomfortable area to write about. But, also, I’m sure many people today are worried about some form of cancer, whether it is in their family history or not.

Whatever the reason, this idea about possibly having many undiagnosed tumours inside me called to me somehow. I then did what I have been told to do when something interests or bothers me: do a little research and find out for myself.

A Little Backstory

I recently started watching Bob’s Burgers on Prime. It’s pretty funny, has interesting characters, and I recommend you check it out. I’ll provide a little plot for some context to this article for those of you who haven't seen the show.

Bob's titular character runs a burger restaurant with his wife and three kids called,… you guessed it: Bob’s Burgers. It’s set on a lovely street with a few other stores including arch-nemesis “Jimmy Pesto’s Pizzeria” across the way and a funeral parlour next door cleverly called “It’s Your Funeral”, run by a nice gentleman named Mort.

Long story short, Bob and his wife Linda go on a double date to help Mort, a mortician, find new love. Coincidentally, the woman Mort is set up with is also a mortician. Hilarity ensues.

Soon after they hit it off, they start bonding over asking each other strange work-related questions at the table such as, ‘what’s the weirdest thing you pulled out of a body?’, and ‘what’s the most common thing you see in a human body when you do an autopsy?’ If you’ve ever been the odd person out at a table where everyone else has a business commonality to talk about, you know how uncomfortable and awkward Bob felt. I sympathized.

However, it was the answer to that last question that piqued my interest and became the crux of this article. When asked what the most common thing was found that was not supposed to be in the human body, the two morticians both exclaimed “tumours!” simultaneously.

While this was meant to be a gag for most people, it got me thinking. What if that’s true? What if lots of us have a bunch of tumours in us, and we don’t know it? How many tumours do I have now? How many will I have later? Are these multitudes of tumours going to kill me?

As you can see, I spiralled a bit at the end there.

But the primary question remained in my head: Do we humans go through life collecting undiagnosed tumours that may or may not harm us with only our friendly neighbourhood mortician to notice once we’ve kicked the proverbial bucket?

I hope not.

I investigated further.

What are tumours, and what types can we get?

So we all have an idea of what we’re talking about here; let’s get some basics out of the way.

According to the NIH, tumours are an abnormal mass of tissue that forms when cells grow and divide more than they should or do not die when they should. So it’s something that’s there that shouldn’t be there. Also, nobody knows where they come from or why they begin to form.

What are the types of tumours?

According to MedicalNewsToday, there are three main types of tumours: benign, premalignant, and malignant.

Benign — Non-cancerous, cannot spread or grow (or do so very slowly), and will probably not return if removed. Examples: Adenomas, fibroids, hemangiomas, and lipomas.

Premalignant — Cells are not yet cancerous but have the potential to be. Examples: Actinic keratosis, cervical dysplasia, metaplasia of the lung, and leukoplakia.

Malignant — Cancerous, can spread and grow, may return if removed. Examples: Carcinoma, sarcoma, germ cell tumour, blastoma

Let me say this right now: If you see or feel anything that might be considered a tumour, see your doctor and have them check you out.

If something doesn't feel right inside you, there are several ways doctors can get a closer look at the issue:

  • X-Rays
  • MRI
  • CT Scan
  • Mammograms
  • Ultrasounds

If your mass looks or feels dangerous, the doctor will do a biopsy. A biopsy is where a small piece of the tumour is surgically removed and tested to see if it’s cancerous.

Now that we know the types of tumours, how do we know how many we will have in our bodies at the end of our life? One way is to look at studies of people who have had autopsies.

What is an Autopsy?

An autopsy is a detailed dissection of a deceased person. They are mostly done when the grieving family wants or needs an answer to a suspicious death or legal or medical necessity.

One of the major barriers to answering the question implied by Mort the Mortician is the fact that most deaths do not require or necessitate an autopsy. Because of this, it is impossible to know any exact figures as to if a significant number of people have numerous tumours when they die.

Studies I Found

In one study published by the JAMA Network (Journal of the American Medical Association), scientists performed a ten year (1986–1995) retrospective of all the autopsies done at the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans. Of the 1105 cases, 654 were male, and 451 were female, and the average age was 48.

Results of the study:

  • 433 neoplasms — also known as tumours — were discovered
  • 250 of those were malignant
  • 111 malignant neoplasms in 100 patients were misdiagnosed
  • In 57 patients, the malignant neoplasm could be attributed to the cause of death

In another study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on PubMed.gov, in a series of 25,000 autopsies over 25 years, 700 cancers were found — about 11% — in patients where a cancer diagnosis had not been considered clinically relevant. In over half of those, the unrecognized tumour was considered an incidental finding and of no importance.

The main organs involved were:

  1. Kidney
  2. Prostate
  3. Stomach

Takeaways of the Studies:

While those numbers may sound scary, keep a couple of things in mind.

One, in these two studies, only about 15% of the bodies autopsied had undiagnosed tumours. However, these studies were done a few years ago when medical imaging technology was not as good as today.

And two, as mentioned, only a small percentage of deaths receive an autopsy, so the actual percentage of people who die that have undiagnosed tumours is probably much, much lower.

While these study’s findings suggest that yes, many tumours can go undiagnosed and, if untreated, may cause harm or kill you, the likelihood that your body will be riddled with tumours when you die is not as likely as Mort the mortician suggests.

Tumours Are More Likely As We Age

Unfortunately, you’re more likely to develop tumours and be diagnosed with cancer as you get older. According to CancerResearchUk, out of every 100 people diagnosed with cancer, 89 will be aged 50 or older.

Why Are We More Susceptible to Cancer As We Age?

As we get older, our cells can become more and more damaged. Things that can contribute to this include:

  • UV rays from the sun
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Inappropriate diet
  • Other carcinogens

As you age, “you tend to have more potential exposure to and more unhealthy habits”, says Dr David Boyd, Intake Physician and Director of Wellness, Prevention and Primary Care in Phoenix. Over time, these harmful substances and habits can build up in the body and form tumours, becoming cancerous.

Get any lumps, bumps, or growths checked out by a doctor. Photo courtesy of Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Prevention

Tumours and cancer can be unpredictable, and some cancer and tumour formations are unpreventable. This is one of many sad and infuriating facts about cancer, but scientists and researchers are working tirelessly to change it.

While the likelihood of getting cancerous tumours increases with age, their formation is by no means a certainty. However, you can help yourself avoid tumours and cancer by making some subtle changes in your lifestyle.

Here are a few small ways you can significantly reduce your chances of getting cancer:

  • Quit smoking
  • Exercise and stay active
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Have regular check-ups with your doctor
  • Reduce your alcohol intake
  • Keep a healthy weight
  • Limit sun exposure

The healthier you are, the less likely your body will form abnormalities that could lead to tumours or cancer.

Takeaways

Perhaps Mort the mortician and his date mostly did autopsies on older patients and, from those experiences, found more tumours than normal. However, in the real world, it is not likely that most people are riddled with tumours when they die unless they are diagnosed with some form of cancer.

As we age, we are more susceptible to growing tumours because our cells begin to break down. We are also exposed to more toxins, and the cumulative effect of this exposure could cause tumours and cancer if left untreated.

Many tumours are benign and won’t harm you. However, there is a chance that they could become premalignant or even malignant. So be sure to have any lump or growth checked by a doctor to be safe.

In the past, there was evidence that tumours were misdiagnosed or missed altogether, but medical imaging and technology today is quite advanced. So if you have a lump or tumour or aren’t feeling well, or have chronic pain somewhere, the best option is to get it checked out by your doctor or get scheduled for body imaging using an MRI, X-ray, or a CAT scan.

With today’s advances in health, medical imaging, and surgical technology, there are many ways to avoid tumours or have them successfully removed.

With a little knowledge and a bit of hard work, you can do your part to live a long and healthy life, not only for you but for your family as well. Remember: eat healthy, get some exercise, and get checked out by your doctor.

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