(How does cancer kill)
As I hope I’ve given some hint above, Pann was my best friend for years. He’s dead now, which is something I hope none of us understands. As I sat by his deathbed awaiting the inevitable, I often wrote notes. I render some of them below, much as I wrote them.
As I type this, my best friend from college lies in a hospice bed a few feet from me. The doctors say he’s within days of succumbing. He suffers from a particularly odious form of cancer unlike, in many ways, any other I’ve ever known. But, in the most important way, precisely as cancer always is. It’s taken over his body.
Pann first suspected trouble when his bowel became painfully obstructed. When they went in to see what was wrong, they found he’d been oozing a sticky, viscous mucus material from his appendix, probably for years, into the peritoneal cavity. That is the space between the organs and the interior wall of the rib cage, going all the way down to the groin.
The cavity had become so full of this puss that there was no room for normal passage of semi-digested food through the intestine. Everything came to a sudden stop. It was like a semi flipping onto its side in front of you on the freeway.
That was about seven years ago. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and he’s been highly engaged in the battle ever since. A battle that is apparently about to come to an end. They have twice had him on an operating table for most of the day while they attempted to remove all trace of the mucinous growth from the inside of his body and the outside of his intestinal tract. The technique amounted to literally spreading his insides out on a table next to his, washing it all thoroughly, then carefully putting it back into its original location.
Each operation was followed by extensive chemotherapy, always a painful and exhausting experience. More than once they’ve had to cut away bits of his insides to make it all work. His cancer has always come back in a slightly more tenacious and altered form, starting as from scratch and winding up very much as before–except it no longer is dependent on the appendix for its source and has gotten more and more rigid.
Through it all he has maintained his dignity and been extraordinarily positive in outlook. During more healthful periods he has continued cycling, often with his son, maintained a great relationship with a lover, and kept working. He had a blog which should be of great interest to any and all physicians or patients attempting to understand a patient’s view of cancer treatment (available on request). His example has belittled everything I ever knew before it, including the guy walking out of the wilderness I spoke of earlier. What an infinite privilege to call him my best friend.
Tonight, as they changed his bedding, I caught a glimpse of his distended stomach. Incredibly old, for a man my own age, it looked like a gunny sack full of balls of various sizes, ranging from a marble to something almost as large as a softball. The skin clung, like shrink wrap, to each lump.
It would have been almost funny if it weren’t so grotesque and so terribly tragic.
But, tragic it is, and grotesque it was.
Pann is dying, mainly, from malnutrition. That is a very frequent theme with death by cancer. In Pann’s case, it is primarily a side effect of loss of appetite, although I’m sure the tumor is making sure it gets more than its fair share of what he does eat.
In general, how cancer kills is actually quite counterintuitive: it’s not an alien bacteria or virus invading the body and exercising malicious intent. Our bodies have seen and known the cancer family’s cells since the womb. No human being has any reason to suspect cancer cells of doing anything but their job.
In fact, they do nothing wrong. They do sometimes cease to perform their intended function. Usually, in fact. Their failure in that regard can, indeed, be fatal to its host, i.e., to the person of which the cancer is a part. Oddly, cancer is, essentially, self destructive. What makes it so horrible is that it kills us in the process.
Cancer cells’ growth can be ugly or cause pain, which is often the first awareness we have of anything amiss. It’s not often overtly destructive of the other tissue in the body–it simply crowds it out.
Such crowding is usually the fatal complication, as the loss of some vital function performed by an unrelated organ kills the whole. Cancer essentially either strangles its mother or stops fulfilling some vital role it once did wonderfully well. Unwittingly and unintentionally, but inexorably.
Of course, oftentimes the treatments we apply trying to control the cancer may so weaken un-targeted cells as to open the doors for some other kind of malady to enter and become the source of the ultimate endgame.
So it goes, too, with the cancer that is humanity. We are crowding out virtually every non-beneficial species on the planet. “Non-beneficial” from our own, myopic, point of view, of course.
We’ve produced so many byproducts that tracking the origins of the malady is often virtually, if not literally, impossible. For example, are dead zones in the ocean a consequence of ocean acidification, pollution, overfishing, some combination, or something we’ve not even imagined?
Many of the things we do would not have a destructive impact if they weren’t being done in such quantity. Because of this, many of these may be difficult to recognize as having a negative effect at all, since the injury to Gaia isn’t apparent from the perspective of those causing it. It’s only when viewed on a global scale with awareness of the conglomerate impact that the truth can be seen.
This is the case with climate change. Without a holistic point of view, any one industry can refuse to take responsibility for its contribution. To complicate matters, those who benefit in the short term may be motivated to obscure the negative effects of their activities, simply denying any ill effect, or they may even promote the evil effects without paying any attention to the consequences.
To wit, polluters finance campaigns to deny even the fact of climate change; capitalists propagandize for the “essential” positive power of growth; and money, agriculture, and technology have all gained such a stranglehold on our way of life as to transcend any questions regarding possible negative roles they might play in Gaia’s demise. The resistance from stakeholders involved plants insurmountable obstacles in the way of most efforts to address climate change.
Some practices, like using air conditioning and driving our automobiles, are just too popular to allow serious discussions suggesting truly significant modifications-at least not until well after the damage is irreparable.
Many actions that may at first seem palliative of our ill effects on Gaia may lead to unexpected results with substantially more severe consequences for the environment than the original situation.
For example, the transition from wagons to cars might be casually viewed in retrospect as good news because it removed a lot of horse manure from the world’s streets. But, in the long run, the impact of the automobile is clearly more negative for Earth than one can imagine the horse having ever been. The oder alone would have probably forced some better solution on us if we’d realized what a poor one the automobile was.
Baring that, though, the greater wisdom of the overall system would have stepped in as it always had before by bringing on disease to put our population back to a sustainable level.
To be continued. Next = What to do? What to do?!