Thomasina Copenhaver–How many people ask their MD questions about chemotherapy? Have you ever wondered how such a toxic substance (so toxic that those who administer it must wear gowns and gloves) became the “standard of care” for cancer? The truth of its origin is as far away from a scientific laboratory as one could imagine!

In August of 1943, President Roosevelt approved the shipment of chemical munitions containing mustard gas to the Mediterranean theater.  Two thousand mustard bombs were loaded onto the USS John Harvey. The ship was waiting to unload in Bari, Italy when German planes attacked on December 2, 1943. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons. The Allies didn’t trust the Germans and both sides were secretly stockpiling mustard gas to prepare for retaliation.

Imagine the Allies surprise when the Luftwaffe (believed to be stretched too thin to attack) blew up the USS John Harvey, releasing 2000 mustard gas bombs (120,000 pounds) into the air and the bay, indiscriminately killing soldiers and civilians. Hundreds of sailors who had jumped into the water to escape the sinking ship were covered with an oily, garlic smelling residue that blistered and burned their skin and caused many to lose their eyesight. The Top Brass knew exactly what was causing the symptoms. But they had been ordered to keep quiet.

Lt. Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander was flown to the scene after a short briefing. Alexander was trained to treat the effects of chemical warfare. He instantly recognized the symptoms: garlic-like odor, burning skin, and blindness. It had to be mustard gas. Alexander was able to begin treatment immediately and saved many people. However, when he briefed the commanders, he was told to treat the patients and keep his mouth shut. It was clear to him it was a cover-up. No one wanted the Luftwaffe to know they had blown up a ship filled with mustard gas. Though it would be years before the truth came out, Alexander took tissue samples back to the U.S. to be analyzed immediately.

As the doctors began analyzing tissue samples they saw a distinctly consistent pattern. All the samples showed a marked depletion of white blood cells within the lymph nodes and bone marrow—exactly the tissues that become filled with lymphoma. With the help of two Yale pharmacologists, Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman—they began a series of experiments on mice. Their hypothesis was confirmed: the mustard compound (nitrogen mustard) showed a significant decrease in the size of lymphoid tumors in mice. The two pharmacologists persuaded a thoracic surgeon (Gustaf Lindskog) to give nitrogen mustard to an advanced lymphoma patient with no other options. The patient’s tumors regressed. Other patients had the same results. The research trio was excited to share their incredible findings with the medical community and the world. They would have to wait until 1946 because of the secrecy surrounding the military war gas program.

There was much excitement surrounding the publication of their research. Up until now, the only treatment for cancer was surgery or radiation for solid tumors. If the cancer spread—surgery and radiation were useless. The possibility of circulating a drug throughout the body to fight the cancer where it occurred captivated scientists around the world. This development ushered in a new age in oncology.

How ironic that this “breakthrough” came from a substance designed to kill our “enemies.”

It shouldn’t be a stretch then, to find out that after wide distribution and a few weeks time, the “remission” produced by nitrogen mustard gave way to a powerful resurgence of cancer cells filling the lymph nodes. This makes sense if you understand that the lymph system takes out the garbage we put into our bodies. Blood brings in the nutrients, while lymph takes out the garbage. When your lymph nodes are full of garbage (aka poison), it has nowhere to go but to circulate throughout the bloodstream.

To understand how nitrogen mustard attacks human DNA, you need to go back to high school biology. Base pairs of DNA bind to each other through hydrogen bonds. Hydrogen bonds must be pliable in order for DNA to function. In biology, structure equals function. So in order for DNA to replicate, the helix (structure) must completely unwind so that each individual strand can be copied. Cell division occurs only after all twenty-three pairs of chromosomes are laid out and replicated. Nitrogen mustard permanently locks two nucleotides (the building blocks or base pairs of DNA) called guanine and cytosine—preventing them from individually replicating and stopping cell division. Since nitrogen mustard can’t discriminate cancer cells from healthy cells, it travels through the bloodstream locking the DNA structure of every cell it encounters, preventing not only cancer cells from replicating, but healthy ones as well.

Since nitrogen mustard is poison, the human body reacts to this attack by trying to get it out of the bloodstream as soon as possible. Shortly after chemo injections, the patient is hit by waves of nausea and vomiting as the body tries to rid itself of the poison. Of course, it makes sense that your blood cell counts (red, white, and platelets) would go down in the weeks that follow because the nitrogen mustard stops cell division necessary for blood cell production! That’s why they monitor your blood cell numbers so closely!

As the effects of nitrogen mustard continue to lock your DNA and decimate your blood cell reproduction, bruises appear as clotting is inhibited. Lack of fresh red blood cells produces an all-consuming fatigue as anemia sets in. Chance of infection rises dramatically. Hair can’t grow and falls out. Finally, the hard-working cells of the gut are decimated, resulting in lack of absorption of nutrients and uncontrolled diarrhea.

At this point, you have reached the razor’s edge between life and death. How many people do you know who have been there? Keep in mind this chemical warfare was designed to kill enemies. Keep in mind, this chemical works to change the structure of your DNA, preventing it from replicating the very blood cells that give you life and allow your body to function! It’s NOT the DNA, it’s the chemical weapon that binds its structure and therefore destroys its replication function.

“Pull out the poison, feed the body, and God will heal.” Burton Goldberg