Cancer Cells, Healthy Cells: Spirit, Society, and Reality

This essay has now been published in The Selfish Cell: An Evolutionary Defeat: Matteo Conti, 2008 Kluwer Academic Publishers Group (Netherlands), 2008 Hardback, 104 pages ISBN: 9781402086410 ISBN-10: 1402086415.

Cancer: The Analogy

The other day, worrying about a friend facing chemotherapy, I was riding the commuter rail and reading Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words to try to gain a little spiritual peace. Between the worry about the friend who was fighting off cancer, and my ponderings about humanity, something clicked when I read this passage:

That's when I asked myself, are we cancer cells?

Yes, I know, it's an old analogy. People refer to their social enemies or social problems as "cancers." But what does this really mean?

Cancer is, quite simply, our own cells that have turned so "selfish" that they no longer do their assigned roles (e.g. be a liver cell, be a colon cell, be a lung cell), and instead just start selfishly hogging nutrients, fooling nearby cells into helping them, multiply, and eventually destroy the body. Meaning, kill the person they were supposed to be helping.

Some years ago, I had a fascinating conversation about how social problems have similarities with cancer. According to the person I was talking with, the organs in our body normally have a constructively competitive relationship with each other. The brain competes for blood against the other organs, for example. The needs and demands of various organs play against each other, and sometimes in emergencies the brain and heart will demand all available oxygen and to heck with everyone else, but all in all, the body manages to regulate things for the good of the whole. Cancer cells, in contrast, are destructively competitive: they compete, but they play a zero-sum game where if they win, everyone else (the rest of the body) loses. (Not that the cancer really "wins" - it dies when the body it was depending on dies.)

If we look around at society, we can see spiritual cancer sprouting up in just about every sector. On the streets, we can find gangs recruiting members, expanding their territories, disposing of enemies with violence that cares not a whit who might die, and spreading the drugs by which countless people will fall into addiction and despair (and wreak havoc on their own families). In the rarefied strata of big business, the widely-known corporate scandals point to powerful individuals who choose to work for personal gain over all else, sacrificing everything from ethics, to employees (if you've worked for a selfish and arrogant boss you know what I mean), to even the environment - and sometimes, the selfishness can even destroy the company, leaving innocent employees and investors holding the ruined pieces of their job and investment hopes.

Government, medicine, even science and religion - we will find examples of those who want to succeed or be proved "right" no matter the cost to anyone else.

The Similarities: Cancer vs. Social Cancer

Don't these "fallen" human beings display the appropriate signs of being cancerous cells in the body of society? They...

See some parallels? Our universe is one in which patterns repeat themselves. Mathematical patterns pop up in unexpected places, from the shapes of bee hives and Romanesco broccoli, to the golden ratio, to the shapes of flowers. We see how simple components (each with its own roles) aggregate to form complex components, which each have their own roles and yet aggregate to form even higher components: atoms form molecules, molecules build up cells, cells build up organs, organs make up bodies, and bodies form societies, and societies form worlds. In every level where the spark of animate life exists, where spirit most obviously holds sway, there are repeating patterns of life and behavior. So it is no surprise, then, that just as cells can go bad, human beings can go bad, and eventually entire companies, governments, and countries can start going bad.

The moment we decide that our needs are more important than anyone else's, and that our good must be ensured even at others' expense, then we have become a cancer.

(Yes, it is true that if a choice must be made, the body will sacrifice all else to save the brain and the heart. But this does not excuse a brain that seeks its own pleasure at the expense of the rest of the body - such as those who choose mind-altering drugs that destroy health. And woe to the heart beating on after the rest of the body has shut down - it will soon die, too. Even losing a relatively "unimportant" organ like the gallbladder is now known to cause long-term problems for the rest of the body (such as cancer!). A body that cares only for its most glamorous parts, and not for the rest of itself, is heading for trouble.)

What Can Be Done?

So, if our society is suffering from cancer - as indeed it appears to be - what can be done about this?

The current way of fighting cancer is to cut it out (along with surrounding healthy tissues) and destroy it, then flood the body with toxic chemicals. I suppose the social equivalent is police action, war, prisons, executions, and confinement. How expensive this way is! At times it becomes absolutely necessary, but still, knowing the trauma and suffering of both war and, on a smaller scale, harsh medical treatments, perhaps it is fair to ask, "Is there a better way? A less violent way? A higher way?"

We have only lately started thinking about prevention. How much better to stop the cells from going bad, whether through better nutrition, proper exercise, or through reducing exposure to toxic chemicals. And likewise how much better it is to be building up a positive, caring society, in which all are cared for, and abuse is avoided and neutralized before tender young personalities are deeply scarred?

And finally, there is the possibility of change. When I first wrote this section, I thought that cancer cells could not possibly change back to normal cells, contrasting strongly with human beings who could choose to become a contributing member of society again.

But I was wrong. According to Dr. Jean-Pierre Issa of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, cellular changes may sometimes be reversed in epigenetic cancers (those in which the DNA is intact, but the expression of some genes is silenced through other mechanisms). Rather than killing cancerous cells, the treatment involves reactivating the genes that had been silenced. Then, if those genes succcessfully become operational again, the cell apparently changes back to normal - the results include a remarkable rate of remissions, or even a disappearance of the cancer.

And of course, we know that human beings can change as well.

Such cases are rare, but they exist. The murderer in prison who repents and changes his life; the greedy corporate leader who awakens to a new way of thinking; the angry gang leader who discovers that hatred and violence solve nothing, and only compassion and caring offer the real way out.

What can change these people from cancerous to caring, from malignant to magnificent?

Isn't it love?

What can stop people from becoming cancerous in the first place?

Isn't it love?

To continue the Peace Pilgrim quote from the top of this page:

This is not new wisdom. The theme is very similar to some astute text included in 1 Corinthians 12:

Indeed, if one member suffers - if one person is enduring great pain - then we know now that eventually, he is likely to "fall away" and, in effect, turn cancerous. We know this from examples all around us of violence or greed. The entire body suffers when one member suffers. But if one unhappy, destructive person is returned to society, happy and healed, loved and loving both, then the entire body is the better for it. After all, every human being has a unique and individual aptitude, potential, and way to contribute!

And Whose Body Is It?

We may care about only ourselves, and do whatever it takes to please just us; we would have no allegiance to others, no compassion. We would be renegade, solo cells - no more than a single-celled organism. But most of us choose to belong to some body or other (recognizing also that groups can usually get more done than an individual). The bodies we choose tend to be small and familiar. We may identify most closely with our own family, and live and work for that family. We may ally most closely with our company, and work like mad for that company, and do everything we can for that company. Or, we may choose our country; we may fly our flag, cheer our leaders, work for, fight for, die for our country.

But belonging to these "bodies" is no guarantee of social good. In some cases, our family is a street gang, and our work is to sell drugs that causes misery that might cause others to sink into evil. In some cases, our company is greedy, and our work is to make profit no matter what, and the fruit of this practice might be poverty and environmental destruction. In some cases, our country is fascist; it may be persecuting minorities and waging war on its neighbors, and our work is to overcome and kill the enemy; and we already know the horrors that result from that.

How is this different from choosing to be part of a body that causes its cells - us - to become cancerous through the poor choices of the leaders? And how can we want to help spread cancer throughout the body we care about? Or, if the body we chose is getting fat at the expense of the rest of the world, do we really want to be part of what is essentially a tumor on the face of the planet?

So - as C. S. Lewis pointed out, we must choose for our body, and our leader, something higher. Preferably, we will choose the highest concept of good that we know. Perhaps we will even choose to follow God.

But in some cases, our God is a god of narrowness and condemnation, and our work may be to destroy all those who disagree with us, even, perhaps, through terrorism. Don't we need to choose our God wisely, measuring our God against the highest principles we know? And thus don't we already know that our God must be a God of love?

The Body of Love

Suppose we believe Christ Jesus is a good leader, a teacher of love, and that he was sent by God to bring humanity to God. Suppose we want to join that oft-quoted "body of Christ" thing.

If the Christ that we choose likewise loves all of us as much as (if not more than) he loves himself, doesn't that mean he will take care of us far better than we take care of our mortal bodies? This is good; that means that he will take care of us, heal us, feed us, and certainly keep us from becoming cancerous.

If the Christ that we choose even loves those that we have condemned, or judged, or hate, what does that mean? Could that mean that everyone is potentially part of the same body? Theologists may argue that one must be born again to be part of Christ's body, and all who turn away are forfeit, but didn't Jesus teach us to love everyone, including our enemies? Didn't he teach us not to judge and not to condemn?

Why would God ask us to love that which is unloveable? If we are expected to love everyone, then everyone must be loveable (God doesn't ask us to do impossible things). We are not to judge who is or is not part of the same body. And supposing that "sinner" over there really is separate from me. Doesn't love bind together, and make whole, and thereby unite me with that "sinner" over there and erase the separation? Doesn't love force us to view even those we thought were "impossible" or "unsaveable" or "unloveable" as worthy of care, just as every part of a body is worthy of care for the sake of the whole? Doesn't love show how we really are connected, no matter how we may try to separate ourselves or believe we are "different," just as the parts of a body are connected and each part is specialized, and harm to one harms all? And doesn't the act of loving others force us to abandon our selfishness and arrogance, those very things that characterize cancer?

The Ultimate Solution

Can we see that viewing others through love, through the eyes of God, unifies all of us into one body? And that the action of loving dissolves the boundaries we thought were there, sends caring to the malnourished, sends healing to the bitter and twisted, uses forgiveness to return renegades back to their loved ones, and transforms the illusion of separation and "us vs. them" into the truth of wholeness and unity?

Is this, perhaps, how bodies are miraculously healed of cancer?

And isn't this how human beings are miraculously healed of spiritual cancer?

The best preventative, the best medicine, the best cure for cancer of the world is love, and we (you, me) are precisely the ones who need to practice the love. We can't just want to get that love; it is in the giving that we turn ourselves away from becoming a cancer, and help others do the same, and bring wholeness and healing and unity to all.

The key is to start loving. The key is to give, rather than get. The key is to practice love right now.

Then we become a network of healthy cells, cells that not only are healthy, but which spread health throughout the body. And the body becomes stronger and healthier...

...and just as a person freed from cancer discovers health and energy and is given a new lease on life ... imagine what a cancer-free, loving, giving world would be like!

I can't wait.

Only love lets us see progressively higher: the cells unified into organs, the organs unified into people, the people unified into societies, the societies unified into nations, the nations unified into worlds, the worlds unified into creation, and all creation unified in God. No more separation - no more strife - no more war - all becomes one in God. If we choose love.

Originally written May 2005. Copyright 2005, 2008 Eri Izawa. All rights reserved.
Spirituality Learned the Hard Way