Daily Archives: August 27, 2009

The Pest in the House: a metaphor for cancer

We are battling an invasion of field mice.  A neighbor told me that all the rain has driven them indoors.

Several weeks ago I opened the drawer to my desk and at first couldn’t even fathom what I was looking at.  Where there had once been tidy stacks of stationary, it now looked as if a tornado had gone through. Papers were strewn about and in the back corner was a soft little nest with five dead baby mice.  I then recalled finding a pillow, the cover of which was mysteriously speckled with little rips. Further searching revealed that the fringe had been chewed off two different sections of our oriental carpet.  I hated to do it, (kind of a general no kill policy–and mice are really cute) but traps were laid out. We caught just under a dozen mice.  For a short while, it seemed we had restored a little of what we consider the natural order in our home (more of us than them).

Until yesterday.  I was helping my son clean out his closet and I came upon another soft nest–this one was empty.  This particular closet was also a storage space for winter coats, so I began to go through them.  Before long, I located the source of the plush threads:  a vintage wool coat of mine had an area about a foot in diameter gnawed out of the silk lining.  More distressing yet, an antique mouton coat had a whole chewed right through it.  This mouse had a taste for fine materials.

Although not pleased with the destruction brought about by the nest building mice, I do not take it personally.  They are simply doing what is their instinctive imperative and no offense was meant. However, I am not obligated to allow them entry into my home and unlimited access to and destruction of my possessions. What is good for them is bad for me.

I cannot help but see the parallel to cancer in this scenario.  It is hypothesized that we may all have circulating cancer cells at any given time.  These are generally kept in check by our immune systems, and have no noticeable effect on our well being.  However, an external event, such as exposure to one or more carcinogens, can upset this balance and the cancer cells may proliferate to the point where our health is compromised.  This is when we generally become aware of our “host” status to an uninvited lodger and we do our best to evict “it”–(the cancer).

We have had occasional sightings of mice ever since we moved in here, but until this rainy summer (the outside event) we have always had the upper hand.  Our modest efforts at keeping down their numbers are suddenly ineffective, and the mice have begun to inflict some costly damage.  We can no longer coexist without harm being down to our home.

I am pretty certain we will always have some mice, but if we can find a way to deplete their numbers, we can minimize the damage that they do and carry on living.  We may occasionally feel unsettled, as we hear them rustle in the walls, but the situation will not be untenable.

This is such an apt metaphor for my cancer.  Cure is almost certainly not possible, but as long as we are able to keep the cancer at a level where it is not severely compromising my health, I am able to go about my life.  However, just as I will occasionally be kept awake by the sounds of mice in the rafters, so too will I listen to the beat of my heart and think about the cancer that is yet traveling through my veins.  Should I find evidence of proliferation, it will be time to clean house.