Reversing the “Kill Cancer” Metaphor

Posted on December 30, 2009 by


I had previously asked before if there was an alternative way to look at cancer as opposed to isolating ‘bad’ cells and “killing” them as if it were a war.

The NY Times talked about a novel new way to perceive of, and subsequently treat cancer.

This might just sound like all semantics and an extended verbiage exercise to people. I’m not actually in a lab or a hospital dealing with petri dishes or patients, but I think the way we use language influences the way we think. Ultimately, we use that thinking to solve our problems. The use of both written and spoken language can highlight or ignore certain things that you might want to think about. It isn’t simply a passive vehicle to expression, it can also be an active guide to solution.

How you perceive a problem, will usually dictate how you respond to it. How you perceive a problem is dictated by two things mainly: 1) your 5 senses, and what people have said, your environment, your beliefs, basically – 2) your memory. Language is one tool that helps bring back things from that vast but imperfect store called your memory.

One comment on the article talked about how cancer has been perceived:

The cancer wars have been built around what you might call an essentialist assumption — that cancer is a THING. The assumption is particularly appealing to surgeons, who are skilled at removing or fixing THINGS.

The idea that cancer might sometimes be a PROCESS involving apparently healthy cells, which you might call an environmentalist assumption (nature is dynamic and interactive; a responsive system) certainly seems more in keeping with our times.

According to the more popular dominant view of what cancer is, the view I learned in my cancer biology class, cancer spreads like a bad apple; once infected, the apple infects the whole bunch of apples. The solution implies that all we need to do is get rid of the bad apple.

It follows that the popular idea is that one bad genetic mutation can spread malignantly over the entire body. The solution to a spreading of that mutation is naturally to isolate that mutation and get rid of that bad gene as soon as possible. If you just get rid of the bad gene, theoretically, the problem of cancer should be mitigated.

However, some researchers, as highlighted in the article, are perceiving the problem in a different way.

Breast cancer surgeon Dr. Susan Love put her perception of cancer like this:

“Think of it as this kid in a bad neighborhood. You can take the kid out of the neighborhood and put him in a different environment and he will behave totally differently.”

It follows that this approach to treating cancer will revolve around making sure that the healthy cells around the mutated gene won’t crumble. It’s about making sure the neighborhood is still in tact. The new solution is to not so much get rid of the bad gene, but to make sure that the “bad gene” does not “cooperate” with its surrounding cells.

The metaphor of the “bad neighborhood creating bad kids” comes from experience in the social world that I’ve heard a lot myself and am inclined to think. I think people are not inherently bad. Similarly, I don’t think that a mutated gene is inherently bad and is out on a mission to destroy the body.