Tuesday, August 29, 2006

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0280 - Pathology and Therapy

"Atoms don't get cancer; animals do." - Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, p.103.

One of the truisms of evolution is that increasing complexity, especially biological complexity, means that more things can go wrong. We know this intuitively, although we rarely articulate it in terms of evolutionary development.

Postmodern humanity, for example, is fraught with neuroses and occasionally psychoses that would be rare, if not outright impossible, among our ancestors and primate cousins. That's the price we pay for living in an ever more complex sociocultural environment with its myriad symbols and concepts and opportunities for mental differentiation and dissociation. I mean, how many chimpanzees do you know who need cognitive therapy from Dr. Phil?

Cancer, as we all know, is a pathology. It's the result of biological processes gone haywire, of cells and organs which have fallen prey to unbridled growth and failure to differentiate along normal biological patterns. In my individual case, the cells of the sigmoid colon and rectum, instead of growing, dividing, and dying normally, somehow lost the normal constraints which harness growth. The cells of the gastrointestinal tract grew, but did not differentiate, according to normal patterns of the GI tract.

For each cancer, medical science tries to devise a variety of therapies, a way of dealing with things that have gone wrong. Therapy is intended to set things aright. With cancer, especially colorectal cancer, we have therapies like radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, all of which seem blunt, almost brutal, in their implications. So it is no exaggeration to think of therapeutic measures in military terms.

Radiation blasts cancer cells to prevent growth. Chemotherapy interrupts cellular processes at the DNA level to prevent unbridled growth, although in doing so healthy, natural cells also get targeted - collateral damage, if you like. Surgery is perhaps the most obvious of all. Find the tumour and route it out. It's like ethnic cleansing.

Military images and concepts seem so appropriate for the state of the art in cancer therapy. We battle cancer.

It's because of evolutionary progress that cancer exists. And it is because of further evolutionary progress that therapies exist. Both pathology and therapy are part of the legacy of evolution. On this planet - 3rd rock from the sun - both are part of the price we pay for evolution.

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