Sunday, September 23, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0667 - What I Need

This should be simple, right? Being a colorectal cancer survivor should mean that my needs are only slightly different than most people. After all, if there is no evidence of disease now, then the only differences of note between me and the "average" person will centre on what treatment has done to me.

Yes, but...what the "average" person needs is not as simple to determine as it might appear at first glance.

If you take evolution seriously (and I do), then what met the needs of homo sapiens for hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of years has to be foundational for any meaningful discussion of what meets our needs today. Instead, what most of us hear is the latest pop health blurb on TV or radio or even a "Google Alert".

"Eat more fiber and you too can beat colorectal cancer." "Caffeine and vitamin D supplements will improve your odds in preventing cancer." "Add a little red wine to your diet." "Stop imbibing alcohol or you'll regret it!" "Take a colon cleanse now." "Yoga and meditation ease the stress implicated in cancer recurrence." "Just pray about it."

Blurbs - they're everywhere (even here). Not many of us have the time or the inclination to do the required research to sort out the blurb from the body of scientific evidence. But, perhaps all we need is to listen to what the body tells us. Granted, we'll have to listen closely, but surely it's within our grasp to just tune in to internal physical clues and signals and respond accordingly.

If you've been reading this blog since late November 2005, then you'll probably recognize the difficulty I've had in "tuning in". For what it's worth, my experience with cancer, treatment and recovery is teaching me a very difficult lesson; namely, it's not easy at all to figure out what to do to meet my own needs.


I'm deeply embedded in humanity's grandest and most ambivalent achievement. We in North America, born in the mid to late twentieth century, have unparalleled prosperity and technological resources at our disposal. And we have the "diseases of kings" to match our prosperity - cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, drug addiction, and, of course, cancer.

There are so many good things that have resulted from this surge of science and technology, wealth and prosperity. But our losses are significant too. Perhaps the major loss is our recently acquired inability to determine what we need. We no longer know how much to eat, how much to sleep, how much to drink, or to some extent, how to get along with other people.

Our bodies are finely tuned instruments which have acquired natural capacities during the course of evolution for determining exactly the right amount of food required, exactly the right amount of sleep to get, how to cooperate with and respect other members of our species, and how to be happy. The only other species to have demonstrated the "diseases of kings" are those we have expressly put in laboratory experiments to see what we can do to disrupt their own evolutionary adaptive mechanisms. They too get fat, they ignore others, they become addicted, and they lose the ability to determine adequate amounts of sleep.

Overly protein- and calorie-rich foods and drinks, drugs, and alcohol have bypassed our own evolutionary adaptations. Light at all times of day and night have tricked us into a constant state of sleep deprivation. Instant gratification has fostered an unnatural selfishness and ignorance of the needs of others. So the current state of the "average" person is one with unparalleled wealth and apparently useless evolutionary adaptations to manage the side-effects of that wealth.

I am, like everyone else in the developed world, struggling to figure out what I need, what I truly need, struggling to find a balance lost and almost impossible to restore.

Still, I have hope that our science and technology and our will to survive will allow at least some of us to rediscover balance, to respect the wisdom of evolutionary adaptations in a "natural" environment, and to move beyond the "diseases of kings".

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