Cells Don’t Have Brains

Or: Why I’ll never write one of those “dear cancer” letters

Cancer is not a person, or even a sentient being, or even a separate life form. It is not an invader. Cells divide, that is what they do, except with cancer, it’s an anomaly of cell division. My cancer is just of my own cells running amok.

I see lots of “dear cancer” letters, especially in October, and they always make me uncomfortable. I know, I know, it’s just a way of coping with cancer. For me, it is sort of in the same category as going into “warrior mode” then “kicking cancer’s ass”.

Except I’m that jerk who points out that cancer has no ass to kick, not being a person or animal or whatever. This is one of the reasons I hate the “kick cancer’s ass” slogan—I won’t go into the bigger reason for that right now (see this old post Why This Smart Ass Does Not Kick Ass for early thoughts on the subject).

I’ve been writing this post, off and on, for a long while now—maybe years. I got started one day reading a post I heartily agreed with; a discussion on why cancer is not a gift (roll my eyes over that old cliché, gag!). I read through the comments and one patient vehemently declared, no, cancer is not a gift—it’s evil!

While yes, I certainly am on board with the whole “not a gift” thing—nooooo, it isn’t evil either. Without a brain, cancer cells cannot have purpose or intent. Without purpose or intent, cancer cannot be evil. Don’t get me wrong, it feels that way to me much of the time. My first reaction, like so many other patients, was cut this thing out of me now! I envisioned the classic “invader”, the idea it was some sci-fi “Alien” thing.

It took a long time, and I still must curb my thoughts and reactions, to ground myself and my view of cancer as some fantastical creature, some demonic possession to overcome. It is easier to think cancer is some evil invader, not one’s own body gone wrong, failing, betraying. Cancer is not sci-fi, it isn’t even alien. It’s just me, my cells—but gone wrong.

I have nothing to say to cancer, because cancer doesn’t have ears, so cancer ain’t listening. And yes, again, I realize letters are a coping strategy—like journaling or, cough cough, blogging! I realize many of us must frame cancer experiences as a story. And as someone who has shared her story via blogging, it is a bit unfair of me to criticize the storytelling of cancer—this beast or invader who must be met on a battlefield, and vanquished like a dragon or something from King Arthur times.

I guess some of my discomfort stems from a growing unease with the storification of cancer, and yes I do it too. But sometimes it strikes me silly. Like, did I battle the traffic to get to the grocery story, fight my way through obstacles (other customers in the check-out line), to emerge victorious and return home with my booty (groceries)?

I know, I know, having cancer is not as mundane as a trip to the store. But on the other hand, I fear making it too epic. I mean, maybe I have made it epic too much my own stupid self—I’m still blogging about it all these years later after all.

I guess what I’m saying is—my coping strategy is quite different. I NEED to know that cancer was not deserved, that it was in fact, maybe quite random. Something happened that triggered the cells to divide improperly—and it is just that simple. It is tempting still, to view my body as a traitor, but it isn’t. My body just isn’t smart enough to make a plan of betrayal—my body contains a brain, but each cell doesn’t have one. I NEED to know that my current status of not having any evidence of cancer is just a result of methodical medical interventions, not any of my lackluster abilities (because if it depended on me, well, I’d probably still have a tumor). I take perverse comfort in the randomness. At some point, maybe someone will discover cell division run amok is not random, that there are triggers, and I NEED to think about that, to know that science, not epic tales, will be the end of this.

*Special thanks to one of my clients, The Engineer, for playing midwife to this post.

Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

10 thoughts on “Cells Don’t Have Brains”

  1. Wendi, thank you for publishing this! One of my first topics I wrote about was related to this idea that cancer is not some sort of “enemy” who invaded my body. I haven’t published it because I wasn’t ready for people’s reactions, since it seems to me that most cancer patients view the disease as such (I titled it, “I can’t seem to be able to curse at my own cancer”..controversial?). You just inspired me to put it out there now that I am not alone on this.

    I have not been able to separate cancer from me and there are quite a few reasons for this. I just choose not to be at war with myself.

    Everyone has a way of coping like you mentioned, but for me I find it more difficult to continue to deny to myself that I can die at any time. Bad things can happen to me too and that’s just how life is. People call it “staying in the dark” but I’ve often thought I was in the dark before realizing this simple fact of life.


    1. Thank YOU! One of my favorite blogging lessons (NOT cancer lessons, mind you), is that if I’ve thought/felt it–someone else probably has too. It helps me when I have a post I’m afraid to put out there–most of the time–I still have a few I’m a bit worried about! ha ha!
      The way society talks about cancer has troubled me even more deeply this year. Not just the battle language, but nearly all the phrases–even “share your story”, have all started to trouble. No doubt, I’ll say more on this topic, sigh.


  2. I think this whole trend stems from how impersonal cancer — and other catastrophes — are. It’s hard for us humans to live with that kind of concept. We feel it personally when we are diagnosed, so we may think it makes us feel better if we confer a kind of personhood on cancer itself. I ‘hate’ cancer, but I don’t take it personally. I never said, “Why me?” I think it helps that I work as a clinician, where everyday I see all manner of health crises befall people that are random and impersonal and undeserved. Stuff happens, including cancer. But conferring personhood upon it gives it too much power. It’s a disease, not a Viking marauder, after all.


  3. Reblogged this on anotheronewiththecancer and commented:

    Reblogging my own piece from a few months ago. Why? Here ya go:
    I am getting very tired of the over-dramatization of cancer, of giving cancer human or monster attributes it cannot possibly possess. That is why I do NOT write “letters to my cancer”.
    Those ACS ads that came out at the end of 2015 were awful; I tried to avoid them. Didn’t know about the one in which “cancer fears love” until my friend Luna wrote about it. On the whole this ad campaign is terrible, but this one really plucks my nerves for this “make cancer a person/monster” angle.
    Look, some people clearly need to anthropomorphize cancer to cope–but organizations that provide scientific info should NOT do this. I don’t write letters to cancer because cancer can’t read. But I assume someone at ‪#‎AmericanCancerSociety‬ can read. So Dear Person In Charge of this Campaign, STOP IT!


  4. As you point out,people look at cancer in their own eyes. You don’t see it as I do….while I agree that sexualizing cancer in October sucks hard and no,cancer doesn’t fear love…..I do see it as a monster and destroyer. As anyone knows with a illness like this knows,there is no right or wrong way to look at cancer,it’s the most private journey we take. We have friends,family,soulmates walking along us but never in our path.


    1. Oh man do we ever have to do our cancer alone! I think I’ve written a few paragraphs in random posts saying as much, in this blog’s history. And in MANY places here on this blog or on this blog’s Facebook page, yes, I state we are all free to do cancer as we wish–at least in theory. As I noted in this old post, and in the preface to my reblog of it (see comment above yours), yes, I get viewing cancer as a monster is as much a coping mechanism as is, ahem, blogging, which is how I cope.

      You are not alone in seeing cancer as a monster/destroyer–the fact there are so many “dear cancer” articles out there, and in fact the launch of this ACS ad campaign–those things would not exist, and the ACS would not have launched this ad if it did not resonate with many people (they want the donations). But a few people see it the way I do, I think. Turning cancer into a monster is part of the dominate narrative–and I disagree with possibly the entire dominate cancer narrative. This is where the “do cancer however you want” becomes merely theory, not reality. My next post will question why orgs like ACS are deaf to the criticisms to things like battle language, etc. My previous post questioned the ethics of medical industry using the dominate cancer narrative to the point of being a little misleading–and I will continue to do so. My views, and my blog posts, will continue to evolve on this. Stay tuned, if you want. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

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