Daily Archives: July 20, 2010

Cancer and cockroaches

In Meredith the mice had been making nocturnal raids again. I placed a  butterfly on my desk (found lying by the roadside) and in the morning the wings were scattered about and mouse turds had been exchanged for the carcass of the insect. Cheeky little beggars. Here in Marfa, it is cockroaches that really want to come inside.

No matter how much effort goes into eradicating these unwelcome pests, they persist. I can’t help but think how similar the situation is to one of cancerous cells, albeit with a very important difference. The mice  (and even the roaches) are not intent on destruction; they simply want what we have (food, shelter, a comfortable life), and help themselves.

I had rather a Eureka moment the other day as I was pondering the nature of disease and its relationship to host. Just as the mice are opportunistic invaders, so are parasites, bacterial infections, viruses and cancer. Each hijacks another’s resources for its own advancement. However, unlike those other pests and pathologies, the fate of an individual cancer is inextricably tied to that of the organism it inhabits. There is no infectious component to the cancer itself (although the onset of some cancers have been demonstrated to correspond to a virus) and therefore no opportunity to transfer to another host. It could be argued that however injurious their presence may be to the body they inhabit; infections, viruses and parasites, like mice and cockroaches, have their own survival as an ultimate goal. Their invasion is really not personal.

Cancer is rather like a suicide bomber though. As each cancer arises within the DNA of an individual organism, it is precisely coded for that organism and that organism only. When the host dies, so does the cancer. Were we to assign a motive to cancer’s reign of terror, it would be total nihilism.

That’s really kind of spooky and certainly not very sympathetic; also frankly impossible not to take personally.

And now I’m going to expand my metaphor. Imagine that your body is a house and the cancer is a cockroach. As I’ve alluded to in an earlier post, sometimes we are cohabiting with mice (or other vermin) and they are so deep within the walls of our residence that we never know they are there. As long as they do no damage, we may remain unaware of their presence for a long, long time.

Should we happen to find a single roach, it will undoubtedly make us uncomfortable and we may take some initial steps toward eviction. However, once it becomes clear that there is a full scale invasion at hand, war will be declared.

There are several possible strategies. Ideally we would figure out how the invaders are gaining admittance to our residence, and block those portals. Much, much smaller than us, they are able to gain access through the tiniest of gaps. It is virtually impossible to identify and close them all. We could also attempt to cut off their food source, but even a high degree of fastidiousness may not be enough. Our house in Marfa, built almost one hundred years ago, had several rooms with the original wallpaper. It had been pasted to the wall using an animal skin glue, and the cockroaches were dining on the ancient adhesive (now that was a nasty job, pulling down that paper).

Roaches multiply at an astoundingly high rate. I had a chat once with an exterminator, and he said that for every roach you see, there are perhaps another hundred hidden in the walls.

The parallels with cancer are fairly obvious:  the most effective solutions are rarely elegant and generally involve harmful chemicals with potentially dangerous side effects. They may not work, and even if they do succeed in eradicating the pest, there is a high probability that it will return. Sound familiar?