Be like cancer, my friend.

Obviously, this title is a joke, and it is a play on the famous phrase uttered by Bruce Lee several decades ago- “Be like water, my friend”. I don’t want you to be like actual cancer, though there are several people I know who are like that. I just thought, there are valuable lessons to be learnt. At the level of cancer, at the level of an individual and at the level of society.

Bruce Lee talks about how water changes it’s nature according to the pressure you put on it. If you’re gentle, it is soft, but if you strike it, it resists.

Cancer is similar in it’s adaptability. A cancer originates in the body of it’s host. It is not something that comes from outside. It is a part of you, that responds to the selection pressure you put it through. A cell, that was originally a part of you, gets tortured repeatedly, and in it’s extreme attempts to survive, it transforms into cancer. Cancers can occur even with trivial triggers. What kind of trigger ultimately leads to a “successful” cancer, depends on the host and it’s internal enviroment.

All of us, have cancer cells in our body. They are weeded out very efficiently by the body. Which is why most cancers occur in old age, by which time so many errors have accumulated, that the weakened immune system can’t keep up.

A cell, that is put under, environment, metabolic or inflammatory conditions for long enough, will have a greater chance of cancerous transformation. The first line of defense against that transformation, is the cell itself. The cell has enough wisdom on it’s own, to recognise that it is now a danger to it’s host. It will then display signals on it’s surface asking the immune system to kill it, before it can spread the disease. This takes care of the vast majority of cancers even before they get past that single cell stage.

If the immune system doesn’t recognise the signals as dangerous, that single cell will continue to accumulate errors. It will start to multiply more successfully, because it has been selected by the toxic environment that gave rise to the cancerous transformation. It is a survivor. It is more equipped to be successful in a body that is awash in synthetic chemicals and chronic inflammation.

That clone of cancerous cells now cares only about survival and obtaining resources for it’s own growth.

It does this by,
1. Eating itself (autophagy) by cutting out all non essential functions and diverting all resources to just staying alive and reproducing
2. By altering the way it uses its resources
3. By refusing to curtail it’s own growth.

A little side note on altering its fuel consumption patterns
– glucose is metabolised anaerobically
– less energy is produced per molecule of glucose
– this allows the cancer cell to survive in low oxygen environments
– it was earlier assumed that this inefficient method of energy production from glucose was because it’s mitochondria are unhealthy
– it is now known that the “waste products” from this process are further used, recycled, to make other building blocks for itself.
– metabolic by products are used to circumvent barriers to growth
– the cancer cell is truly elegant in how single minded it is, to ensure it’s own survival

Anyway, enough of my eulogising a cancer cell.
My point was, we, as humans can learn from cancer cells. We can consider ourselves as individual cells making up a body (society)

1. About being determined to survive
2. About cutting back on non essentials when there is a resource crunch
3. About recycling every resource we have, to ensure whatever we have is used to the maximum
4. About turning adversity into opportunity

When it comes to the negatives
5. A chronically toxic enviroment, selects for a toxic individual(cell/person)
6. A purely selfish cell, will experience extreme success in the short term, but ultimately lead to an early death of it’s host. Leading to its own death.
7. There are numerous defences against a cancerous conversion. Only when several of them fail in series, does a cancer develop. Same for an individual.
8. Even after that series of systemic failures, a cancerous conversion is not guaranteed, because most of those cells make a last ditch effort by killing themselves. Only some end up as true cancers.
9. Any host that is combating cancer, needs to alter the environment that gave rise to the cancer. Continuing the old habits, while combating the disease is doomed to failure.

It would be nice if people could point out the holes in this analogy. And the good things about it. Basically, looking for a discussion to refine this thought further.

More and more, I’m seeing parallels between what happens in our own bodies and what happens in society. It’s a useful framework(for me) to create hypotheses on human behaviour, I think.

Leave a Reply