I’m reading a wonderful book about cancer— a biography of cancer— called “The Emperor of All Maladies.” I would recommend it to anyone interested in both the story and the biology of this disease, as it’s filled with enough juicy facts (and plot twists!) to both entertain and to bring you well within the reach of feeling that you’re somewhat of an expert on the topic of cancer. (Not to be confused with the Tropic of Cancer— it doesn’t talk about that at all). I’ve read a lot about cancer, thought a lot about cancer, and this book covers a great deal of it, in great detail. I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
Gushing reviews aside (as if he needs my blurb for his front cover— he’s already got Oprah, the New Yorker, and a Pulitzer Prize), there’s something ingrained in the way he tells this story that rubs me (only so slightly) the wrong way: it’s a breathless, occasionally hyperbolic dramatist’s telling of The History of Cancer as The Biography of An Enemy.
Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the necessity of spinning a good yarn if you want to get people through 470 pages on cancer (and win a Pulitzer Prize and an Oprah Book Club mention in the process), but from the title to the subtitle and throughout the narrative itself, there’s this constant literary implication that cancer is a character: a humanoid creature with a mind, and a motive. In other words, he anthropomorphizes cancer, and if you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning you know I don’t like to talk about cancer like I’m talking about Brandon. And here’s why:
When you consider the gorgeous complexity of the human body (or any vertebrae, for that matter) with its interwoven matrices of different cell types and chemical types and organs and reactions and counter reactions all synchronized in a perfectly orchestrated ballet of life… the SIMPLISTIC BARBARITY OF CANCER is almost… hilarious.
So add this to the list of reasons that I take issue with turning cancer into a person, or an enemy, or even “a beast.” If you’re going to see cancer as an evil thing with a mind and a motive— if you’re going to anthropomorphize it— you might as well do the same for saliva, or the lymphatic system (what a wonder!), or the fantastical (and fantastically functional) digestive microbiome working its ass off inside of your actual ass every goddamn day, just keepin’ things flowing without ever asking for a damn thing in return!
But we never do that, do we? We don’t even anthropomorphize our eyes, and our eyes are a hell of a lot more interesting and complex (and beautiful and functional) than stupid cancer. Eyes would actually be gods in our bodies if were anthropomorphizing the whole setup! But when’s the last time you heard somebody refer to human eyes as benevolent gods bent on showing us the light, and illuminating our way, or bridging the gap between our minds and the visible world beyond us? (Here’s a guess: never. Or maybe in some random poem that I’m sure somebody is going to find for me.)
But if we insist on giving cancer a brain and a motive— and we do it all the time, so clearly we insist— then let me propose this: if cancer is a character in the story of our bodies, then it is only one character in a cast of millions. And here’s the thing: it’s one of the dumbest goddamn characters in the lot! All it does is get in the way!
In fact, one of the most interesting things about cancer is how stupid it is: it’s one of the only parts of your body that is just totally uncooperative. But it still is (if you have it, and this part is crucial) a part of your body.
Cancer is on your team— it’s just not playing by the rules. And it didn’t quit because it’s too old (like a heart), or because you drank too much and broke it (like a liver— speaking of which why do we never call our hearts and livers demons when they stop cooperating?)
The only reason cancer doesn’t play by the rules is that it’s been brain damaged from the start. It was born that way. And you’re the one who gave birth to it. So can you really blame it?
The point is, cancer is really, really dumb— all it’s good at is fucking and making more of itself. (Unfortunately, it’s really really good at that). But it doesn’t even know what it’s doing it, and it certainly doesn’t have a grand plan, so don’t flatter it by calling it a “beast” or (Eyes forbid) comparing it to something as wonderful as a human being.
At best, cancer is a zombie. But it’s a zombie whose horror comes not in biting or brain-eating, but in over-procreating. (Think of how the English used to think about the Irish, or how some people still think of other people, because we’re all assholes.)
Look at it this way, if you insist on anthropomorphizing: Cancer Zombies just wander around aimlessly, each zombie splitting into two zombies every five minutes, eventually making just so many damn zombies that they’re eating all the food and clogging up all the highways and pretty soon you can’t even open the door to your house anymore because they’re piled up all over the lawn! And when they break through your windows, they don’t do it with their fists, they do it because there were so many of them out there that they just got forced inside. You can’t really blame them for over-occupying all your space— it’s just what they do! (It’s all they do, in fact.)
So why, if cancer is a part of us, and it’s just one of the many many parts of us (and not even the most interesting one, by a long shot), why is cancer the one part that we turn into a thinking thing? And why are we so afraid of it?
Because we’re afraid of death.
We try to ignore death, but we can’t, because we know it’s coming. (It’s definitely, positively coming.) And so death lurks in the background, it has to hide in the shadows, and it gets creepy there because we don’t want to look at it. And pretty soon, death turns into something that we FEAR. It’s a spook in the night!
Would we fear death so much if we didn’t try so hard to ignore it?
There’s another big thing that we shouldn’t ignore (that we’re very good at ignoring) but we don’t fear at all, because it surrounds us each and every day, and (if we’re lucky) we like looking at it. And that thing… is LIFE.
Life! Now that’s something worth anthropomorphizing!
She’s a beautiful lady, Life. She’s gorgeous, in fact. With one of the most incredible faces— and the biggest heart— I’ve ever seen. So caring, Life! She walks beside us day after day, holding our hand even when we don’t realize she’s doing it. Even if we tried to let go of her hand, we couldn’t. Because she holds onto us, Life. And it is only when SHE is ready to send us on our way that she finally releases her careful, caring grip.
And there is no need to fear that moment, because Life will take every ounce of us with her—she will carry us with her!— as she goes along on her beautiful, merry way. We are an inextricable part of Her, and Her us, and it will always be that way.
And that’s all I have to say about that.