Quietly, quietly... poison?
October 25, 2006 4:11 PM   Subscribe

(Writing/Hypothetical Filter) Are there any poisons that (could) mimic the symptoms/effects of cancer if administered to a person over time?

I am writing a story and I'd like for one character to poison another over the course of a few months. However I would like the poisoning to initially be attributed to another natural reason - cancer etc, before being discovered. Does anyone know of something like this? Possibley available domestically? Also, any reccomendations of reference books for this, I've read about the Teacup Murderer, is there anything else out there?
posted by teststrip to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Chloramphenicol is a pretty potent antibiotic. It's been discontinued for human use in most of the world; it's occasionally still used in some third world countries. (It's also a very good antibiotic in use in biology research labs for a variety of purposes)

The reason it's been proscribed for human use is that it causes aplastic anaemia.

To speculate, initially it would result in chronic tiredness (poisonee goes to see doctor... "oh, it's nothing. Get more sleep. Exercise. Don't stress out about work as much).

Subsequently the anaemia would progress, but adult onset anaemia isn't unheard of.

By the time aplastic anaemia is diagnosed, it'd probably be pretty severe and poisoning may or may not be suspected.
posted by porpoise at 4:18 PM on October 25, 2006

I'm not sure cancer is a good choice here. Most cancer is completely painless as the tumor grows and metastasis to other tissues. Eventually, this results in organ shutdown (e.g. kidney, pancreatic, neurologic failures) which are immediately lethal. Symptoms occurring before this are loss of appetite, sudden weight loss, and lack of energy...(so maybe your poison would mimic those?) Side effects of cancer treatment (radiation and chemo) are what really ravages the patient.
posted by dendrite at 4:21 PM on October 25, 2006

This is a little implausible. Doctors diagnose cancer by removing tissue and examining it under a microscope. It would be hard to imagine a poison that would cause a growth to appear cancerous under a microscope.

Unless it's simply a carcinogen. Have you considered that? I propose the nitrosamines.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:27 PM on October 25, 2006

Amphotericin B, an antifungal, is quite toxic to the kidneys. Adult onset kidney failure happens.

One of the early symptoms of hygromycin (another antibiotic) poisoning is hearing loss. I'm not sure what the late/end-stage symptoms are.

Unpolymerized acrylamide is quite neurotoxic (and the effects are cumulative). Early symptoms include peeling of skin and weakness/numbness. in limbs. Later effects include brain damage and dysfunction of sensation and movement.
posted by porpoise at 4:31 PM on October 25, 2006

Not cancer.

If your story will accept that your victim gets Parkinson's Disease, there are toxins which can be given to someone to bring about something a lot like that. (For instance, 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,5,6-tetrahydropyridine aka MPTP.)

But the damage is permanent. If ingestion of the toxin ceases, the victim doesn't get better.

There are things that can cause cancer, but that doesn't sound like what you want, if for no other reason than it usually takes years.

The problem with your idea is that "cancer" doesn't really have a recognizable set of symptoms. For one thing, what kind of cancer? In some cases there's effectively no symptoms at all until it's long since too late to do anything (e.g. some kinds of lung cancer).

In many other cases the only real symptom is generalized complaints about pain. That's what happened to my dad, who died of pancreal cancer. The problem with that form (one of the most deadly there is) is that its usually diagnosed very late.

The main reason why cancer is so dangerous is precisely that it's so difficult to diagnose, which also makes it useless for purposes of your story.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:31 PM on October 25, 2006

Actually, MPTP wouldn't really work for your purposes either, because onset of natural Parkinson's takes a very long time. If it appeared and then became serious in just a few months, poisoning would be suspected -- though not necessarily deliberate poisoning.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:35 PM on October 25, 2006

I propose the nitrosamines.
posted by ikkyu2

Scroll down to: Homicide with a Cancer Causing Agent
posted by buggzzee23 at 4:45 PM on October 25, 2006

Forgot the link: Homicide with a Cancer Causing Agent
posted by buggzzee23 at 4:46 PM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

That guy used way too much. You only need a few milligrams.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:05 PM on October 25, 2006

The short answer is no. Firstly there's nothing I can think of that would produce a mass remotely like one one would find in lymphoma or solid organ tumors. Now the sensation of having cancer apart from a mass is quite varied and generally vague at the onset. It's true that inducing an anemia is probably doable with drugs/chemicals and the subjective fatigue one might feel would be similar. However to anyone with the simplest medical training, the timecourse of the symptoms as well as further basic bloodwork would easily differentiate the two. Aplastic anemias and myelosuppressive medications behave quite differently than anemia of chronic disease, myelophthisic anemia or leukemia.

Absolutely none of the above recommendations would even come close to making anyone other than a hypochondriac think there was cancer going on.

Perhaps you can implicate the victim's doctor in your story in addition to an agent that might cause symptomatic anemia.
posted by drpynchon at 5:20 PM on October 25, 2006

I vaguely remember a Law and Order episode in which a mother fed her daughter mercury in order to convince people she had cancer.
posted by scottreynen at 6:25 PM on October 25, 2006

Sorry, that's bogus. First, metallic mercury even when ingested mostly just passes right through.

Second, the symptoms of mercury poisoning don't bear any resemblance to cancer.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:00 PM on October 25, 2006

I don't suppose it would be a very compelling story if the murderer just convinced the character to take up smoking?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:39 PM on October 25, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks. I was thinking of a plot along the lines of concurrently the victim is ill (cancer, something) and doesn't tell the poisoner that they have an illness. So the posioner thinks they're doing an awesome job because there's no questioning going on.... and so on. Really, it's all about the human dynamics but I thought having something substantial and *real* rather than 'white powder' would help it...
posted by teststrip at 10:18 PM on October 25, 2006

I don't know if this will help, Testrip, but...

What if the poison just gives the character cancer, for real? A fast aggressive cancer would kill someone pretty quickly.

The two methods I would research, if applicable to your story would be;

1. Radioactive poisons - if attainable within your story and possible for your antagonist - things like radioactive waste in the groundwater of a character with a well. Or you could have a character that could have been realistically accidently exposed to a radioactive source that would not readily lead back to the killer...stuff like that.

2. Viral Cancers - although rare, they do exist, like human paploma virus amongst others, and some of them cause very aggressive virulent cancers!

Good Luck
posted by SalvoSensu at 3:10 PM on November 5, 2006

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