The following essay was written at the time when my wife was undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, and I was being partially scalped to remove a piece of Melanoma (it made me look a bit like Gorbachev).
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. There is a scene in the comedy Notting Hill in which a rabid vegetarian accuses Hugh Grant of having “murdered” a carrot he just ate. It’s funny, but true. 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 or otherwise intending to kill someone else an organism may inadvertently or even deliberately lose its life, but you could hardly call that a suicide. A heroic act of sacrifice, intended to ensure the continued survival of its kind, is more like it. But 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 point of view of the cancer 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 a 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 as it were, 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?
Whenever I am stuck for an interpretation of a natural phenomenon, I fall back on a device that at least helps me understand the question, if not provide an answer. I create a story around it, with the forces at play its characters. This anthropomorphic interpretation is of course fanciful. Natural objects and forces don’t possess the kind of consciousness that we associate with ourselves. But it helps at least clear the fog, and sometimes, if I am lucky, may point in the direction of a possible interpretation.
Go back and imagine for a minute that first mutated cancerous cell, before it had started to spread through your body. Imagine a possible mythical reason for its behavior.
The cell becomes aware of itself. It looks at itself and starts believing that it is unique, quite different from all the other cells around it, and what’s more important, quite separate from the larger system within which it lives, which is your body. Having gained self-awareness and believing itself to be autonomous from the tyranny of your body, it feels superior to the other “ordinary” and 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, perhaps not to harm them, just to convert them to become a copy of its superior self. And as it succeeds, its ambition, and one would assume its self-confidence and pride, 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 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 of 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 unrelated phenomena with a meaning they don’t have? Either way, cancer as an up close and personal warning for our species to beware of Hubris may have some positive purpose (though that may be poor consolation for the individual dying of cancer).
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, not even a basic understanding of the nature of cancer, let alone a cure. If anything, the situation has steadily worsened in spite of the billions of dollar poured into cancer research. Today cancer incidents have become as prevalent as TB used to be in the 19th century. It therefore makes sense that people would be talking about an “epidemic of cancer”, something as terrifying and commonplace as the bubonic plague was.
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.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)