Cancer: A Literal Failure

Laura Zigman Health Guide
  • I know I'm obsessed with "failure" -- and when I say failure I put quotation marks around it because what I'm obsessed with is not failure but the perception of failure which usually isn't really failure at all -- especially "failure" in connection with having cancer, but what's interesting is that cancer itself is actually a failure.

    Every disease and chronic condition is a failure of one sort or another -- diabetes is a failure of the endocrine system to correctly process sugar; a stroke is the failure of blood to make its way through the arteries of the heart and up to the brain -- and cancer is no exception. Defined once by The New York Times as an "accumulation of failure" which occurs when the body's cells fail to die a natural death and continue to multiply and form invasive tumors instead - cancer is rife with failure of all kinds.

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    Sherwin Nuland describes cancer in How We Die as "a state in which a breakdown has occurred in the communication and mutual interdependence between cells" -- a failure of what he calls the body's "surveillance system" to be able to detect cells that have mutated and become "other." Nuland adds to the already big pile of failure the fact that cancer cells are "reproductive but not productive" and that cancer cells fail to behave in a civilized and socialized manner: "Cancer cells are fixed at an age where they are still too young to have learned the rules of the society in which they live. As with so many immature individuals of all living kinds, everything they do is excessive and uncoordinated with the needs or constraints of their neighbors."



    If health is a metaphor for success, then illness is a metaphor for failure, and with cancer another layer of failure is instantly conferred on the ill. Cancer has always been a disease for which patients are suspected of either bringing on themselves, not doing enough to prevent, or failing to successfully recover from.



    As far back as Ancient Greece women with breast cancer were viewed by the most prominent (male) doctor to be "melancholic" -- his implication, of course, was that it was the melancholia that caused the breast cancer as opposed to the other way around. Blaming the cancer victim may have started there, but it didn't stop there. Through the centuries cancer has been attributed to everything from thwarted passion to repressed sexuality. Even Freud's cancer was thought by Austrian psychologist/psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich to have been caused by "genital dissatisfaction" as the result of Freud being "unhappily married."

    It has continued to flourish like a voracious cluster of out-of-control cancer cells to include everything from personality traits to environmental causes and nutritional deficiencies to stress and depression. Getting cancer now comes with a built-in power-grid-like set of chain reactions -- a potential "cascading failure" (defined as a failure in a system of interconnected parts, where the service provided depends on the operation of a preceding part, and the failure of a preceding part can trigger the failure of successive parts) that guarantees the cancer patient will feel like a complete and utter failure almost every step along the way.


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    I've already listed 10 ways that I felt like a failure during my diagnosis and treatment and recovery from surgery, and in coming posts I'll continue exploring this theme because I think it's hugely important to know that feeling like a failure -- which is a very different thing from actually being a failure -- is common to almost everyone going through the cancer experience.

Published On: February 27, 2008