The Humanity of Cancer

On page 58, Williams’ narration details 5-6 separate means of potentially solving the water crisis afflicting the Great Salt Lake, each with it’s own set of pitfalls as well as positivities, both financial as well as otherwise. These parallel both in level of impact upon the afflicted body as well as in number of desirable/feasible options, the anatomical crisis which so centrally plagues Terry’s mother throughout the narration of Terry’s memoir, Refuge.

This parallel of destruction lends itself to a consistent deepening of the ways in which one understands the multiple ramifications of these diseases which affect both the human as well as the land’s “body”. Cancer, as far as humanity can tell, is simply the inability of the cells within an individual’s body to self-detonate at the end of their life cycle, in order to make room for new, developing cells. Now, while natural land masses certainly don’t possess this same characteristic trait of self-maintenance, they are subject to the same finitude of the human body, when met with certain degrees of widespread corrosion & harm with regards to their physical matter. It’s this finitude that both humans as well as their environment are inherently possessive of, which is highlighted by Williams’ mother’s struggle with the disease as well as her own sympathies towards the treatment of the environment around her place of origin.

Circling back a bit towards the idea of cancer; it poses a certain cultural connotation likened to that of a boogeyman or some other fictitious creature intended to scare; but it’s particularly the unknown origin of this fear which gives cancer it’s specific air of insidiousness as well as a certain animosity. Almost as though the disease possessed a consciousness of it’s own, humanity’s language with which it describes its ‘fight against cancer’ certainly allows for a narrative to be articulated as time passes and other facts are found out about the affliction, which I think in part helps us to be able to stomach it’s strange and peculiar nature. Strangely enough, at least functionally speaking, cancerous cells are almost entirely healthy. They perform literally every function that a cell should be performing for it’s body; all except the pre-programmed death which all cells eventually meet as a result of their genes. And so eventually, the body ends up with more physical ground to cover in terms of supplying it’s cells with necessary nutrients like oxygenated blood from the heart, as well as ATP for fuel, etc. which it would need in order to survive, until the demands made by these immortal cells outweigh the actual biological resources of the body to the point where total death becomes inevitable. It’s this failure to die by the affected cells which allows the ominously connotated affliction all of it’s power. To think immortality, a notion which humanity has been obsessed with as a result of its own fear of death; has been achieved at the microscopic level by none other than some bizarre genetic accident; and it directly threatens our lives as we know them. Oh, the cosmic irony.

Still, it’s this parallel between the life cycle of the cell and the life cycle of humans which is directly struck upon by Williams throughout her memoir, allowing for a more multi-dimensional view of just what exactly ‘life’ may be, by more than one definition. When one begins to make a shift from thinking about life in terms of its seeming endlessness (the way I’d like to assume most healthily-minded and generally fulfilled people would go about thinking of it) and instead begins to look upon it in regards to its inevitable end, something very interesting begins to happen in terms of dynamics. The way almost everything begins to relate to each other is markedly changed. As illustrated above, in the context of humanity, an endless life might not seem like a bad idea at all to many; however, if one were to zoom in a few thousand nanometers, into the world of the cell, the characteristic takes on a completely adverse meaning for the being as a whole. It’s this almost paradoxical parallel which invites the reader to think about humanity as potentially cancerous or even about cancer as maybe, in some ways, more human than one might expect at first glance.

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