Archive for the ‘materialism’ Category

Capitalism and cancer

May 23rd, 2010

The amazing Barbara Ehrenreich makes a connection, just after the crash of 2008, the 160th anniversary of the publication of the pamphlet that ignited the world:

The Manifesto makes for quaint reading today. All that talk about “production,” for example: Did they actually make things in those days? Did the proletariat really slave away in factories instead of call centers? But on one point Marx and Engels proved right: Within capitalist societies, or at least the kind of wildly unregulated capitalism America has had, the rich got richer, the workers got poorer, and the erstwhile middle class has been sliding toward ruin. The last two outcomes are what Marx called “immiseration,” which, in translation, is the process you’re undergoing when you have cancer and no health insurance or a mortgage payment due and no paycheck coming in.

You can read the whole blog entry here.  It’s an older post, but well worth the read . . . as is everything Ehrenreich’s ever written.

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Cancer is material

April 29th, 2010

You’ll notice I’ve added that image to the blog, a link to The OUT Campaign, a site dedicated to encouraging atheists to come out about their views.  This is something that I’ve had a hard time doing for many years, despite overcoming many other fears years ago (for example, having been out as a gay man since I was sixteen).

The main reason it’s been hard for me to tell others about my atheism is that I have many friends and loved ones who are believers, and I cherish their company, respect their choices, and would hate to offend them.  I have not posted this image to offend anyone.

But for this blog, it makes sense.  Pervasive in our culture is the view that mystical forces—unseen and all-powerful, ancient and misunderstood—are the true solution to cancer.  As Sontag observed in her incredible work, Illness as Metaphor, this view is common to all diseases when the ultimate cause of the disease is unknown, or poorly understood.  For people with cancer, we often become desperate and despondent when therapies fail—I know these feelings all too well.   And so many turn their hope to magical, “eastern” therapies.  As far as I can tell, the only difference between the evil “western” medicine and the enlightened “eastern” “medicine” is that the former has, by definition, been subjected to empirical test, and the latter has not.

But people who hold these unscientific views are unrepentant: About a year ago, I was visiting some friends after yet another therapy had failed, and my cancer had doubled in volume; I was, I think understandably, disappointed, sad, and probably a bit grumpy.  And a person I had only met a day before told me that people who are happy are more likely to survive cancer than sad people.  When I asked for the name of the peer-reviewed journal from which this insight derives, she said she thought she read it in Omni Magazine (a discredited, discontinued, pseudo-scientific publication that promoted supernatural phenomena cloaked in the language of science). Her message here was clear:  It’s your fault that you’re loosing this battle; cheer up, or face the consequences.  (That fall, the fabulous Barbara Ehrenreich eviscerated this nonsensical view; you can find an excerpt here.) So I asked her if she thought it would help if I shoved a crystal up my ass.  She was not amused, and I think, remained unaware of the horrific statement she’d made.  Her husband (another atheist), standing next to me, hung his head in shame.

The view that crystals, and prayer, and laying on of hands can cure people of cancer is growing in our culture.  When last in the hospital, with my horrific C. difficile infection, a staff member came into my room one day and explained that she could perform Reiki on me, which would help my nausea.  My nausea was caused, as she put it, “of course, by unbalanced energy.”  Um, no: My nausea was caused by an infection, thank you very much.

And this is quite strange, given the growing success of modern medicine’s treatment of cancer. Just look at the death rates for breast cancer below.

From the American Cancer Society's "Statistics for 2009."

Death rates were essentially stable or rising prior to the early 90′s, when genetic techniques (and thus, intimate understanding) first became available.  Crystals and the like were being used just as much in the 70′s (probably more), but it was the science that made the impact, not the white light visualizations.  The biological research that informs physicians is imperfect, and many still die, but this does not mean we are failing.  Science is recursive, unlike any other system of knowledge; it challenges itself, by its nature, to prove existing ideas wrong.  Still, not all cancers show this pattern, but the science that biologists use to discover details of the natural world inform physicians, who employ this knowledge to save lives.  And many lives have been saved.

But this hasn’t stopped many people from thinking otherwise.  Stanley Tucci recently lost his wife to a form of cancer, and in a Fresh Air interview proclaimed that she did not die of cancer, but of the “conventional” treatments for cancer (the discussion of cancer begins at 18:35,  and Tucci’s comments on alternative therapies begin at 19:30).  Tucci went on to say that he only found out about “alternative” (that is, not subjected to empirical test) therapies months before his wife’s death, and concluded that had he known of these alternatives earlier, his wife would still be alive.  I love Tucci; in fact he is one of my favorite actors, and I’m sure he is horribly bereaved; but this is just irresponsible.

Similarly, Bill Maher—famous anti-vaccine and anti-medicine advocate—in April of 2008 blamed Senator Arlen Specter for having cancer, and for his cancer’s relapse. (I would link to the YouTube video where I watched this, but it has apparently been deleted by HBO, even though many other Real Time episode clips from the same month remain.  Hmm.)

I have watched Maher off and on for years. I agree with much of what he says, and I think he’s brave and smart.  But for some reason, when it comes to medicine, he has lost all rationality. Maybe it’s because he’s lived in California for so long.  Who knows?   Only in a world where infectious disease has—with a few notable exceptions—been completely obliterated by medical action that derives from basic biological science, would someone claim that the real problem is the vaccine, the solution.  And I could put many links to The Huffington Post (which I generally enjoy) with similarly inane assertions.  Maybe I’ll do so in a later entry (but you can see for yourself in their Living section on any given day).  And just look back 70 years, and consider the hundreds of thousands of children who died then of infections we now rarely see—infections we have conquered, and in some cases eradicated, with vaccines—and it is clear that Maher’s hyper-modern, myopic view is flatly false.

Microorganisms are living things, and they are merely trying to stay alive, just like us. It just so happens that they make their living by harming ours.  We are no different; we must kill life to live as well. Only the plants are spiritually clean on this one.  So, good nutrition will not save the world from this biological conflict; variation in resistance exists everywhere, and bacteria and viruses evolve, becoming more adept at overcoming our defenses.  Good nutrition alone will not prevent infection, and many will succumb without the enormous benefit of medicine.  It’s quite perplexing (and, increasingly infuriating) to watch Maher rant against religion as stupid in one breath, and in the next proclaim that good nutrition is the solution to illness, and therefore cancer therapies are bogus, and pregnant women should not get vaccines.

So I am not writing this with Maher’s intent.  I’m not here to defame religion.  I’m simply putting this link in my blog because it is honest, and it is a reminder of an important fact that both people with cancer and their loved ones need to remember:  Cancer is a material condition; it requires a material solution.

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Why do I have cancer?

April 20th, 2010

I hear people puzzle over this question often.  Oh, not so much about why I have cancer, but why cancer exists.  In a world filled with bizarre, pre-enlightenment notions of “knowledge” that competes for our attention, it’s easy to see why so many would be confused.  Luckily, we know exactly why cancer exists.  It’s no mystery, and it certainly doesn’t require mystical explanation (though I’ve been astonished at how many attribute it to non-material forces).

Cancer happens because change is the fundamental property of living things.  That change can happen in populations, or it can happen in individuals.  Somewhere along the way, probably in the early 2000′s, one of my b-cells—that important component of the immune system that generates those amazing chemicals called antibodies . . . well . . . got changed.  The change was random.  I do not use this word—random—in the unfortunate way so many are today, to mean improbable, which is the precise opposite of its actual meaning.  The change certainly was improbable in that single cell, in my body; such changes, however, are highly probably across populations where cells are changing all the time.  But when I say random, I mean that it was just as likely to occur in the cell that it occurred in as it was to occur in any b-cell, and the change’s occurrence was without direction, without intention.

The details of the change in my b-cell are well known, and in my case they were demonstrated genetically in Manhattan at the time of my formal diagnosis with follicular lymphoma.  Most say something went wrong; I don’t see it that way.  Oh, I’m not one of those infuriating bright-siders who say absurd things like they’re glad they got cancer, or whatever other garbage they have to tell themselves so they can grapple with their mortality.  I just know biology, and life is change. Populations of cells change just as populations of wasps change.  One of my cells changed.  That’s it.  Maybe, it could’ve been an advantageous change, but it wasn’t, at least not for the whole of me (but from the reproductive perspective of the b-cell, it certainly was. . . more on that later).

The relevant behavioral change in that singe b-cell allowed it to reproduce without bound, and so it and its daughters have been busy clogging my body with their bodies—with too much of me.

Some might find this view cold.  Perhaps.  But it is the truth.  I happen to be comforted by the knowledge of the true nature of the natural history of cancer.  As a famous biologist once wrote, “there is grandeur in this view of life.”

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