Is cancer inherently evil? I think not…

DSRCT histology

I’ve been fascinated by cell biology ever since I was a little girl. As I progressed through education the sheer wonder and complexities of how this tiny building block of life works has never failed to amaze me and fuelled my desire to learn and understand more. I remember vividly the first time I saw a cell under a light microscope. I was 10. We were looking at onions! I was utterly mesmerised. The concept of electron microscopy was introduced later and we were shown pictures and diagrams of the inside of cells and all the organelles doing their part to help. Mitosis is a beautiful process when you watch it happen. But it is hardly surprising that such a complicated process goes wrong sometimes…  

So when I was diagnosed with cancer soon after the initial shock had worn off I was very keen to understand something about the biology of my own cancer. Literature was fairly scarce on such a rare tumour but there were papers out there which I got hold of. DSRCT is caused by a translocation – one piece of a chromosome 11 is swapped with another piece from chromosome 22. This means the cell has dodgy instructions and produces an abnormal protein. This protein is thought to have several roles in promoting tumour growth, which are not fully understood yet. Interestingly my cancer was only formally recognised as a separate disease entity in 1989, meaning I am older than it!

On our DSRCT Facebook page there are several patients and parents of patients who post regularly about how they are going about “beating the tumour” or “conquering the beast” afraid “to give up the fight”. The treatments in the US are particularly barbaric with multiple intensive chemotherapy sessions, frequent surgery, radiotherapy and trials of newer treatments. It is as though people are expressing their anger and grief about the situation by blaming the cancer itself. I find this hard to do myself. This is going to sound really strange but I quite admire my cancer. It’s a clever entity that has fooled my body conning the usual systems that living organisms have to suppress tumour growth. When I look at histology slides of DSRCT I cannot help feeling it is somehow beautiful. Maybe I’m just weird!

However it does raise the point that cancers originate from within us as human beings and therefore by referring to them as evil do we think as ourselves as evil? I think not. I think of my cancer as a part of me and it is unfortunate it has happened to me at a young age, but I cannot change this so acceptance and living as well as I can for as long as I can is definitely going to be my game plan, rather than waging a holy war…


17 thoughts on “Is cancer inherently evil? I think not…

  1. What a great way to look at it, I really like that perspective. It is so clever and hopefully one day we’ll know just how clever! It has always frustrated me when people talk about fighting cancer as if its something that sheer will power can overcome! Yes cancer takes too many premature lives but the more realistic we are about what it actually is acceptance will surely become easier to achieve.

  2. I have to admit that despite knowing that my cancer is my own cells gone wild, I prefer to think of it as an ‘alien’ that I must get rid of, and a sort of battle to be won against a monstrous foe.

  3. The language around dealing with cancer is most usually the language of battle and although I am not in Kate’s position I have long shared her unease. We daily read of someone’s brave fight against it and I’m sure many will say that about Kate. What language is preferable to describe what is happening during treatment?

  4. Thank you Kate for sharing your experiences and feelings.
    I don’t know much about cancer, just the word – this is interesting but not in a bad way in a way that someone knows so little but welcomed into your world of the here and now.
    I could bore you with rheumatoid arthritis but I won’t!
    Take care
    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

  5. I, thankfully, don’t have cancer. I have always thought that IF I ever did/do get cancer, I wouldn’t go on an all out war against it. I could never put it as eloquently as you do, but I believe it is a part of life and I wouldn’t wish to spend any part of that ‘fighting’ my own body. I too would want to spend my days living the life that is left. I admire you and I hope your time left is happy and full if love. Thank you for sharing your experiences. xx

  6. Really interesting – I wonder whether other people with cancers with a clear genetic cause feel much the same? The ‘fighting’ metaphor seems destructive when directed at something in your every cell – somehow more personal and internalised, and internalised anger doesn’t do any of us any good. I have trouble with the ‘cancer as a fight’ metaphor anyway – it can shift responsibility for getting better on to people with cancer rather than on to doctors/science with really destructive effects if ‘the fight is lost’. It also makes it so hard for people to chose quality of life, as you have. Guess it comes from the research in the ?80/ which seemed to show that people with ‘fighting spirit’ do best, but this study wasn’t replicated.

  7. I’m an American who is reading your blog, and I’ve greatly admired and appreciated everything you’ve written until one sentence in this post, and before I address that sentence, I want to say that I greatly admire the spirit and tenacity that shines through your writing – your love of life, your enthusiasm for biology and medicine, your sense of humor even in trying times. I am sorry that you are confronted with this ever so untimely cancer and appreciate everything that you are doing both to savor every minute of your own life and to aid and inspire others.

    With that said, the one sentence I take great exception to is this: “The treatments in the US are particularly barbaric with multiple intensive chemotherapy sessions, frequent surgery, radiotherapy and trials of newer treatments.” I hold a degree from the University of Cambridge, where I had a miserable experience in significant part due to the rampant anti-Americanism of my British classmates. I came away with the impression that referring to most things American as “uncivilised” and “barbaric” was a UK national pastime, it happened so often. And as here, most uses of “barbaric” were typically mostly or completely unwarranted. Are you contending that Americans with terminal cancer who prefer palliative care only are not receiving it, or are being forced against their will into “barbaric” treatments? Do you oppose the desires of patients who wish to participate in new clinical trials – often for the dual reasons that they hope for a better outcome for themselves AND they wish to benefit the future cancer patients who will come after them – who have made an informed decision to endure painful treatment in the hope that it will help them, or at least help others? Is it your view that such patients should be denied the option? Is it barbarism to allow patients to make their own choice between palliative care that relieves their pain while not maximizing their time alive and more aggressive treatments that may maximize their time alive while also causing them great pain? Should someone else get to make that decision for them? I really wish that you and your fellow countrymen/women would either substantiate your criticisms of the US or use less derogatory language in referring to our practices. And, I would be interested in what options the UK system offers such people and why the UK approach is (one presumes) less barbaric/superior.

    • Criticism accepted Bethany. Barbaric was the wrong choice of word… But the treatment of my condition is much more intensive in the USA when compared with the UK without significant improvement in overall survival. I guess there are different drivers for delivering care either side of the Atlantic…

  8. Dear Kate

    I am sharing the final stages of my mother in law ‘s journey through cancer and have been reading some of your blog to her as we sit here together. She is 91 years old and has a different perspective of cancer, but you have made her smile with your sense of humour, and I thank you for that. You have been the means of my being able to talk to her about it and that seems to have made it less frightening for her. I wish you well on your journey.

  9. Fascinating Kate, i work as a Dentist, and although not involved in front line healthcare where death is a situation frequently confronted. I see patients who have been through or going through various chronic and life threatening illnesses. It’s truly humbling to see a fellow human being struggling yet maintaining a smile. We should all primarily think of others around us, i really believe a life not lived in this way is pointless. Death/Illness will strike us all regardless of social/finanacial/spiritual stance/age etc. You inspirational Kate.

  10. Good for you, Dr. Kate! I’m happy and in a way “proud of you” for being willing to be different and uniquely yourself 🙂 Makes me think of Anita Moorjani who had that NDE on her deathbed and wrote “Dying to Be Me” – she makes the case for all of us to live our lives FEARLESSLY! It’s truly the best way to go, yu know?!? Keep shining! I’m thinking of you and keeping you in my prayers…

  11. Pingback: Is cancer inherently evil? I think not… | Hope Always

  12. We have much in common Kate. I too am a physician, with terminal cancer, though I have taken a different route than most.
    I too have mused on the nature of my cancer, and my relationship with it in my blog in a post entitled “alter ego”. Here are some of my thoughts:

    “I do not see my cancer as a monster, something that is alien in my body. The cancer is me, part of my body, it shares my origins, my beginnings. Whatever it represents, it represents something that was always a part of me. Perhaps it is my shadow side, the ugliness that is in me, all the things I don’t admit to myself, much less to others. A Dorian Gray picture, concealed in time, growing uglier and more malignant as the years go by. And finally emerging, a lethal phoenix, needing to be acknowledged, demanding its due, its place in the sun.

    Sometimes I see my cancer as a fetus, a malignant piece of offspring. A wayward child, a rebellious teenager that has decided to break all the rules, to kill its parent. I wish there was a way to communicate with this killer child, to negotiate. I will let you live I would say, I recognize you as being me, we can live and survive together. Sometimes I try to love my cancer. But my child is not accessible to me. Driven by an irrepressible need to grow, to invade, to spread, to suck the life out of me it will tolerate no argument and is immune to my pleas. A tough little bugger this child of mine. It survived the surgeon’s knife and a cocktail of killer drugs. It has outwitted the finest minds, the most skilful surgeons and physicians. It has outwitted its parent.

  13. I have often pondered on ‘what is cancer doing?’ ‘what is it for?’ I believe this is a more positive approach to studying the disease than merely trying to stamp it out. It’s a point of view found more among the biological researchers than the medical ones, of course.

    Years ago I read an article where the author pointed out we still had only two options: cut it out or burn it out. Treatment has made some progress since then – but we can do more.

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