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.