From one amoeba to another

300px-Two_EuglenaCancer doesn’t care about you.

It really doesn’t.

Cancer isn’t something going wrong in our cells or the DNA floating within. There’s no evil motivation. Or at least, not as far as the cells or the DNA is concerned.

It’s DNA doing what DNA is supposed to do. As far as the DNA is concerned, it’s getting it absolutely spot on.

Only DNA doesn’t get concerned. It’s just instructions. The paper and ink aren’t to blame for the bile we write with them. Nor can they take credit for the beauty or insight they help us to create.

If good is doing what you’re supposed to do and doing it well: well then, cancer is good.

Under the microscope, cancer comes with no personality. No malignant or benign intent. It’s just numbers, digits, dots on a graph. DNA bases. Protein pathways. Molecules fitting into each other, or failing to fit.

Cancer happens because the DNA inside cells changes. It can be caused to change by the things we do, but mostly it changes for no reason at all. Just mutations. That’s just what DNA does.

Sometimes nothing happens. The disrupted DNA fades away, engulfed by cells that hold their sequence. Sometimes it doesn’t, and the disruption grows.

The quacks and snake-oil sellers: they like to tell us every one of our cells has cancer. It scares us into buying their elixirs to stop it. Cash in exchange for certainty.

But they’re saying no more than our cells have the potential to evolve. Without DNA disruption there would be no development. There would be no evolution.

There would be no us: I would look just like you. You, just like me. We’d all look like single cell amoeba, floating in the primordial gloop.

When the quacks tell you cancer is evil, that their remedies will return your body to its natural state, tell them that cancer is the most natural thing in the world. It’s exactly how we’re supposed to work.

Without the natural mechanisms behind cancer, our hair and fingernails wouldn’t grow, our body wouldn’t heal. Cancer is as natural and good as our ability to create new life.

There’s a corner of the British Library in London where you can stand, surrounded by white. An awesome unending corridor of oncology. On the shelves on either side sits metre after metre of cancer research journals, stretching back into the five years before.

Their blank white spines face out. Surrounded by the worst illness we know, there’s a strange sense of peace and comfort. In warehouses in the countryside, there are more dusty cancer journals stretching back through more years, decades, a century.

The pages are testament to our unending battle to understand the disease; to pick it apart, to find ways to change the instructions, to try to stop DNA doing so effectively exactly what it is supposed to do.

Do we listen to the quacks and the snake oil salesmen? Take their unproven remedies, lie across their couches and line their pockets? Do we allow them to take us for a fool?

Or do we put ourselves into the hands of the proven? Those researchers, those scientists. The experts. The metre upon metre of white spines on shelf after shelf after shelf. The unemotional, unbiased, the honest, the search for truth and understanding.

The doctors and scientists and researchers have lain down millions of words in those journals. They may be inspired or moved by what cancer creates, but they know cancer isn’t to blame.

They know cancer cells multiply because their DNA told them to, and that multiplication fails to cease because DNA didn’t tell it to switch off. They know the hardest thing of all; perhaps it’s how they get the job done, day after day.

They know that cancer isn’t good or bad. That cancer doesn’t care about you. That cancer just is.


  1. I read this on twitter and thought of you…
    “@WomenOfHistory: Some people pass through our lives in a shorter time frame than we had hoped, to teach us things they never could have taught if they stayed.”

  2. A great post and very true, the replications of our DNA mean that the cancer keeps growing. Lets hope the continued research means that one day we can stop the replications making the cancer grow.
    Off now to read some more of your blog, glad I clicked through from Twitter.

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