A fundamental and groundbreaking reassessment of how we view and manage cancer

    A new book by Athena Aktipis

    When we think of the forces driving cancer, we don’t necessarily think of evolution. But evolution and cancer are closely linked, for the historical processes that created life also created cancer. The Cheating Cell delves into this extraordinary relationship, and shows that by understanding cancer’s evolutionary origins, researchers can come up with more effective, revolutionary treatments.


    Athena Aktipis goes back billions of years to explore when unicellular forms became multicellular organisms. Within these bodies of cooperating cells, cheating ones arose, overusing resources and replicating out of control, giving rise to cancer. Aktipis illustrates how evolution has paved the way for cancer’s ubiquity, and why it will exist as long as multicellular life does. Even so, she argues, this doesn’t mean we should give up on treating cancer—in fact, evolutionary approaches offer new and promising options for the disease’s prevention and treatments that aim at long-term management rather than simple eradication. Looking across species—from sponges and cacti to dogs and elephants—we are discovering new mechanisms of tumor suppression and the many ways that multicellular life-forms have evolved to keep cancer under control. By accepting that cancer is a part of our biological past, present, and future—and that we cannot win a war against evolution—treatments can become smarter, more strategic, and more humane.


    Unifying the latest research from biology, ecology, medicine, and social science, The Cheating Cell challenges us to rethink cancer’s fundamental nature and our relationship to it.


    Critical acclaim for the cheating cell

    "The Cheating Cell is a fascinating book on a subject that’s gaining the prominence it deserves: cancer as an evolutionary phenomenon. Athena Aktipis works in the heart of this field and she deftly illuminates the subject for both scientists and general readers. The implications—for cancer treatment and for the understanding of our existence as multicellular creatures—are huge.”

    —David Quammen, author of The Tangled Tree

    "The Cheating Cell is an instant classic—a book that will transform how physicians and their patients understand cancer, how investigators develop therapies, and how we as a society can work together to reduce the global burden of this disease. Masterful, powerful, and absolutely essential reading for anyone who truly wants to understand the nature of cancer, The Cheating Cell is a tour de force."

    Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, coauthor of Zoobiquity

    "This wise, erudite, and engaging book will change how we think about cancer and life itself. Brilliantly illuminating how cancer is a form of evolution gone awry within our bodies, Athena Aktipis shows that we need an evolutionary approach to not only fight the disease but also live with it."

    —Daniel E. Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body

    "This insightful and long-overdue book views cancer as a disease that results from the evolutionary and ecological dynamics of all multicellular organisms, from birth to death. Athena Aktipis does a masterful job of capturing the many threads of evolution and evolutionary theory that promise to enable a fundamental understanding of cancer and portend a new era of innovative prevention and treatment strategies."

    —Anna D. Barker, Arizona State University and former deputy director of the National Cancer Institute

    "Cancer is more than a source of dread and tragedy—it is entwined with the nature of life and the forces that shaped it. Athena Aktipis has thought deeply about evolution and cancer, and provides an engaging and insightful explanation of why we are cursed with this malady."

    —Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now

    "Trying to keep cheating cells at bay is a problem that connects humans, elephants, Tasmanian devils, and cacti alike. In The Cheating Cell, Athena Aktipis uses clear explanations and riveting examples to show how viewing cancer through an ecological and evolutionary lens allows us to better understand the disease, and can lead to more effective ways of lengthening lifespans in our ongoing battle with this most ancient of foes."

    —Kelly Weinersmith, coauthor of Soonish

    "Aktipis takes an evolutionary approach to cancer, tracing the ways cells ‘cheat’ natural selection and showing how the human body evolved to outsmart many of those threats. She invites readers to put themselves in the role of a cancer cell and learn about the ways in which the disease and the history of human existence are intertangled."

    —Erin Blakemore, Washington Post

    "The one book to read for a true understanding of cancer and its control."

    —David Sloan Wilson, author of This View of Life

    "The Cheating Cell makes for fascinating reading and forces a radical reconsideration of what cancer is and how we should deal with it."

    —Leon Vlieger, The Inquisitive Biologist

    "The Cheating Cell turned my understanding of cancer on its head and you should read it."

    —Hank Green, author of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor


    the Cheating Cell Book tour and Events

    2pm, April 3, 2022

    The Oxford Literary Festival is one of the world's leading literature festivals.

    Late May, 2020

    The Hay Festival is a prominent literature festival held in the small town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, a town with 1400 inhabitants, 29 bookstores and nearly 250,000 visitors during the Hay Festival.




    May 5, 2020

    Science on Tap, Alberta Rose Theatre show 7pm, tickets start at $10.

    Meet-and-greet for National Association of Science Writers members.




    May 4, 2020

    Town Hall Seattle, more information coming soon.

    Meet-and-greet for National Association of Science Writers members.



    Tempe, AZ

    12 noon, March 24, 2020

    Biodesign Institute Auditorium

    Book launch talk is open to the press and public



  • Q&A

    with athena Aktipis

    What inspired you to write The Cheating Cell?

    I wanted to write a book about cancer that was more than just an academic summary of cancer; I wanted to show how cancer is fundamentally tied into who we are as multicellular life forms, and to explain how our ability to treat cancer effectively is based on our understanding of the evolutionary and ecological dynamics underlying it. Really, I wanted to write an epic story about what cancer is, how it emerged during the origins of multicellular life, and how we can use evolutionary and ecological approaches to better prevent and treat cancer. It was also very important to me to write a book that would be accessible to a broad audience without sacrificing scientific rigor.

    What is the book about?

    The Cheating Cell is a book about a new way of looking at cancer. It is about the fundamental evolutionary and ecological underpinnings of the disease. And it is also a book about the ways that cancer is entwined with our very existence as multicellular organisms. We are essentially made of cellular cooperation. Each of us is a cooperative cellular society of about 30 trillion cells descended from the fertilized cell that gave rise to us. In a healthy body, these cells cooperate to make us function effectively as multicellular organisms. But sometimes this cellular cooperation can break down, and when it does, cancer can arise. In The Cheating Cell I explain the many ways that cellular cheating can arise and how this cellular cheating can evolve in the ecosystem of the body. I also take a look at how our bodies have evolved (because of selection among organisms for better cancer suppression system) to deal with the threat of cellular cheating. I end the book by showing how new evolutionarily-informed approaches to cancer hold the promise for changing how we treat cancer and helping us to live longer and more fulfilling lives even with a diagnosis of the disease.

    Will we ever find a cure for cancer?

    The fact is, cancer is here to stay, it will always be a part of life on earth, and our best bet is to accept that it is a part of our evolutionary legacy. As we move forward, we can develop treatments and preventative measures that acknowledge cancer’s evolutionary nature and the many important ways cancer has shaped life on this planet. I think that in the future we will all think about what a cure means differently; that the idea of ‘cure via control’ will come to be the norm, rather than ‘cure via eradication’ which is the current way that people typically think about it. All of us, cancer patients or not, harbor cells with cancer mutations, but most of us are able to keep those mutated cells under control with our toolbox of cancer suppression systems. So cancer control is the normal state for multicellular life forms - ourselves included. By switching our attention from eradicating cancer to simply keeping it under control, we can change the way we think about a cure for cancer, and in the process make finding a cure much more likely.


    Are you using the Cheating Cell in your undergraduate or graduate courses?


    Athena Aktipis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, Director of the ASU Interdisciplinary Cooperation Initiative and cofounder of the International Society for Evolution, Ecology and Cancer.


    She is also the host of the science podcast Zombified. She lives in Tempe, Arizona.


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