Being alive entails killing. It’s an unsettling thought that we try very hard not to dwell on, so we invent euphemisms to cover it up, make it more palatable. We speak of harvesting and fishing and sanitizing, but what all these terms really mean is the act of terminating another life to preserve our own. Nature, from a tiger pouncing on a gazelle to the weed in your garden choking the life out of your Swiss Chard, is one giant killing machine.
But there is one form of killing we rarely if ever find in Nature, suicide. True, that while protecting itself an organism may inadvertently or even deliberately lose its life, but you could hardly call that a suicide. A wanton termination of one’s own life runs contrary to Nature’s prime directive – “Try to survive, whatever it takes”. The case of bacteria and viruses who invade a body to infect it with a deadly disease is no exception. It may look like suicide, after all the virus kills the very body that it feeds on. But seen not from the perspective of the individual virus but from its species or strain, your demise (along with your viruses) is in fact a blessing. As you hack and sneeze and bleed to death millions of new viruses spread to other hosts. Bad for us, good for the viruses.
Many people look at cancer as just another disease, like typhoid or Malaria. Something causes a cell to start mutating. It spreads and multiplies, just like a virus, and in the process destroys healthy cells and eventually kills you. But there is a fundamental difference between cancer and infectious diseases. The cell in question is not an outside “invader” using your body as “prey” for its own advantage. The cancerous cell is you. When it succeeds in its scheme to kill you, it will die as well. From the cell’s point of view this is not a noble sacrifice, neither is it a smart strategy. This is suicide, plain and simple. There is no residual benefit whatsoever to the cell, and its actions contradict the very essence of self-preservation.
Why would a cell want to kill itself? What is it trying to achieve? And what could possibly be Nature’s purpose in such a suicidal process that seems to run contrary to its own evolutionary principles?
Or does it? Could there be some evolutionary “message in a bottle” here that Nature is sending? Is it possible that the cell’s suicide, far from signaling the breakdown of Nature’s laws, is in fact a useful process, perhaps even essential?
I am firm believer in Nature being utilitarian. Things occur for a reason, and the reason usually has to do with survival. Basically, when it comes to living organisms, things happen to either ensure their survival or hasten their extinction, as the case may be. There is no middle way in Nature. An organism is either fit to stay, fit to fit in, or else it is deemed a failure, a dead-end, and it must go. Countless species have come and gone based strictly on this elegant principle. Does the suicidal nature of cancer point in the latter direction, or does it have some other, less depressing (for us) purpose?
Try to visualize that first mutated cancerous cell, before it had started to spread through your body. Imagine a possible mythical reason for its behavior; The cell becoming aware of itself, beginning to believe that it is unique, quite different from all the other cells around it, separate from the larger system within which it lives. Having gained self-awareness, I imagine the cell feeling the freedom from the tyranny of its DNA. It sees itself perhaps as superior to the other mindless cells around it, eventually denying even the fact that it has no existence outside you. And then it starts to spread. It wants to subdue its neighbors, not to harm them just to convert them to become a copy of its superior self. And as it succeeds, its ambition grows along with its conquests. One by one the other cells of the body fall in line with the new order. Pretty soon the entire universe of the cell would be its domain. It looks like a winning strategy.
But like other delusions of grandeur, it is nothing but folly, shortsighted, ignorant folly. As the cell’s power grows, its universe collapses all around it. And at the height of its expansion and power, its world comes to an end and it dies along with the body that it has killed. It’s a suicide murder, and it is tragic like all avoidable tragedies.
As I contemplate my little fable I become mindful of a new interpretation for cancer that sets it apart from all other diseases. The story is a chillingly accurate metaphor for human folly. Substitute Hitler or Napoleon for “cell” and you get the sad history of human Hubris. Substitute the cell killing its own ecosystem and you have an apt metaphor for us destroying the very planet upon which our life depends. Does Nature have a poetic sense or am I endowing it with a meaning it does not have? Either way, cancer as an up close and personal warning for our species has some positive purpose, though that may be poor consolation for the individual dying of it.
The futile hunt over the past half century for a “cure” for cancer, something along the lines of a Polio vaccine, has yielded very little beyond postponing the inevitable. We still don’t know the why, much less how to prevent it. Today cancer incidents are as ubiquitous as TB used to be in the 19th century.
And yet cancer is no epidemic. It is not a foreign pathogen attacking us. It is “us” attacking ourselves. As such it has no precedent. When a species develops mutations that place its own survival in jeopardy it is Nature’s way of questioning its viability.
A physical cure for cancer may someday be found, though I strongly doubt it. However, while we wait we would do well to stop viewing cancer merely as a sickness and start seeing it as the symptom it is, and heed the vital message it delivers to all of us, afflicted or not. Nature is NOT benevolent. It is impartial. Its only criterion is viability within your system, whether you are a cell or a human. If you ignore the greater context in which you live you die.
Cancer on the largest scale may be the planet’s house cleaning.