On Cancer and Revolutionaries

18 December 2017 Comments Off on On Cancer and Revolutionaries


“To confront cancer is to encounter a parallel species, one perhaps more adapted to survival than even we are.” – Siddhartha Mukherjee
Cells have mechanisms by which they can replicate; for instance, one cell grows and divides to become two cells, and so on, allowing a single cell to develop into, say, a human baby. Cells also have mechanisms by which they can die. For instance, up to our last stage as embryos, we have webbed hands and feet; the cells between our fingers and toes then die, leaving us unwebbed. (The same happens in chickens.) In cancer cells, the normal mechanisms that control cell growth and division are broken, leaving us with cells that divide with a mindless frenzy. But this is not enough for survival; cancer cells must actively resist mechanisms that lead to cell death, obtain nutrients and oxygen to ensure they can continue their division, and finally, as a means to ensure better survival, must gain the ability to migrate to other parts of the body where conditions might be more favorable for growth.
We will return to cancer, but there is an idea that has been bothering me: we go through life always searching for the next thing that will fulfill us. As children, we desire new toys; later we want new clothes, gadgets, the university of our dreams; and then a job we love, a car and a house of our own. Sometimes we think love or friendship can fill that infinite sponge of longing inside us. But every desire attained loses its ability to fulfill us. So, we start searching for something new we can latch our hopes onto; then we place demands on all our faculties to grasp it. We accumulate objects of desire, until our souls are bent double, forcing us to hobble through life. We die with our some of our desires whole, perhaps terrified of all that we left undone or where we are going. Or perhaps it is a relief to finally let go of all the weight dragging us down.
Maybe this is why Che Guevara’s life shines so brightly through the curtains of the past. I know very little of the politics or history of South America. I have never been there. I have never studied the people or their struggles. But somehow, just reading about Che Guevara affected me deeply. I find myself rooting for him, feeling a deep sadness at the way his life was cut short, as if by his death the world was robbed too soon of something precious. Or perhaps he died at the right time and in the right way: as a hero. I had not understood this quote from “The Dark Knight”: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” I think I do now.
He had no need to be in Bolivia, yet there he was with a small band of revolutionaries, all the desires men chase abandoned in favor of a crushingly hard life for the dream of a better future for all of humankind. In his diary, he wrote: “Revolutionaries [are] the highest form of the human species.” He and his guerrilla fighters knew the possibility of failure, that people might never know of them, that the world might take their sacrifice as it takes the falling of leaves every autumn and move on. Despite this, they were prepared to give what is most precious to human beings: their lives and all their desires for their own lives. Animals can never think this way. But there are other qualities that separate humans from other animals: for instance, the creation of art, and the pursuit of scientific truths. In these pursuits, however, few people renounce their own lives so completely, and never really for everyone else in the world. Perhaps this is why Che believed that revolutionaries rise above most of humankind.
Maybe his was a life well lived. Maybe the way to live a meaningful life is to have dreams that are not completely self-centered, and then perform, as Elon Musk calls it, “usefulness optimization” – become involved in work that is somehow useful to human beings. Not all of us will shine as brightly as Che Guevara or Elon Musk. But we can try. And maybe some of us can inspire a person who lives decades after us and wonders whether our death robbed the world of a spirit that ought to have survived a little longer.
Survival, strangely, brings me back to cancer.
The reason so many people die of cancer is that cancer cells are better survivors than we are. Siddhartha Mukherjee, physician, researcher and author, puts it this way: “Cancer cells can grow faster, adapt better. They are more perfect versions of ourselves.”
In a way, cancer cells are like guerilla fighters – they face a much bigger, better-trained enemy. Bigger, because at the beginning of cancer the normal cells in the body vastly outnumber the cancer cells; better trained in the sense that cells of an efficiently organized immune system hunt them down to destroy them. Like guerilla warriors, they need supplies to stay alive. They grow supply chains, in the form of new blood vessels from existing blood vessels toward themselves, to be able to obtain nutrients and oxygen and continue their explosive growth. Just as Che dreamt of an international revolution and tried to make it a reality, cancer cells dream of spreading to other parts of the vast body they occupy and setting up new colonies there. Just as revolutionaries dream of more and more civilians taking up arms to make the revolution more concrete, cancer cells increase furiously in number; in this instance, cancer cells are more perfect revolutionaries as well.
My point is not that guerilla fighters are a cancer. On the contrary, based on the very little I have read, I feel the greatest respect for Che Guevara and the life he led. It is just that the patterns of life, at the microscopic and the macroscopic levels, are so strangely similar in some cases. What is going on?