Robert Augustus Masters

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Cellular Immortality Ambitions: Reflections on Cancer and Death

  • July 30, 2016
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If we can speak of cancer having an intention, it is not to kill but to avoid being killed, whatever the cost. As such, cells infested with cancer are smitten, to take some poetic licence, with immortality aspirations. Paralleling this is contemporary culture’s commonplace denial of death and accompanying dreams of unlimited growth, whatever the cost.

Normal cells, in stark contrast to cancer-ridden cells, are programmed — literally and precisely programmed — to die when they become dysfunctional or unnecessary.

The term for this is apoptosis. Once it is activated in a cell, the internal networks of the cell are shut down and a series of enzymatic reactions are catalyzed, leading to a full internal breakdown that occurs without any significant fuss — there is no disturbance of other cells, no leakage of intracellular components into the extracellular environment. No mess, no inflammation, no dumping of toxins. No poisonous spill zones or pollution, no ecological disaster. A clean death.

Some call apoptosis cell suicide, but regardless of the anthropomorphic bent and dramatic connotations of such a label, apoptosis is an elegantly efficient, ecologically extremely sound process. Recycling plus. A life-enhancing death.

Cells undergoing apoptosis — over 100,000 every second in every one of us — signal their demise in timely fashion to the surrounding tissue, shrinking away from other cells without sucking them in. An organically considerate, for-the-greater-good-of-all death.

When cells are engaged in apoptosis, their outer membrane undergoes a change that can be recognized by immune system cells — this leads to a speedy removal via phagocytosis, meaning an engulfing consumption by cells literally born for the task.

Apoptosis has a kind of baseline grace to it. By contrast, cells that die because of mechanical damage or exposure to toxins usually have a messy departure, featuring inflammation of surrounding tissue, loss of membrane integrity, and a leakage of intracellular garbage, all of which of course negatively affects neighboring cells.

Not only does the process of apoptosis not dump on its neighbors nor otherwise violate their boundaries, but it also — arising as it does in individual cells — does not spread to other cells in the vicinity. It is clean, efficient, naturally protective of organismic integrity. A truly life-serving death.

Cancer is largely characterized by an unrelenting, full-out attempt to avoid apoptosis, doing whatever can be done to fend off, deflect, bypass, or otherwise keep itself immune to our immune system, like a gated community barricaded against what surrounds it.

The word “cancer” is closely associated with death, yet cancer itself is death-avoidance incarnate, a fuel-guzzling, resource-draining clumping of decentered, toxically conforming cells marching together not just to a different drummer, but to a different band, setting the stage for a seemingly endless cancer-governed tomorrow.

Death not only serves life, but makes life possible. Level upon level, we literally die into life. We could say that life outlives us, but at essence we are life, whatever form it may take. This is no consolation whatsoever to egoic us, but is living — and liberating — truth to who and what we really are.

Cancer is operationally oblivious to all this, being biochemically mesmerized by its own endarkened agenda, much like those who believe in physical immortality, as if aging were just some kind of disease or error in the System.

Some have claimed that cancer is just the body’s attempt to deal with some very difficult conditions, like a lack of oxygen. Yes, if available oxygen were at a very low level for a significant period, it would make organismic (and evolutionary) sense to find a way to adapt to this, such as generating cells that could live on little or no oxygen — which of course is characteristic of cancer cells.

But cancer is extremely maladaptive for us. Its capacity to live without the oxygen that normal cells require does not lead it to generate functional tissue so as to prolong organismic life, but rather just depletes us, sucking the juice out of us.

Cancer could be described as cellular selfishness and shortsightedness, making unlimited growth into an unquestioned good, plundering other cells and their pathways for its own ends with colonial ruthlessness and a complete lack of ecological savvy.

This is the ultimate corporeal — corporate — takeover, parasitic and self-serving to the extreme, incorporating whatever keeps it growing. Anything to avoid its death. No wonder that for cancerousness — on whatever scale — apoptosis is something to eradicate, outlaw, or at least rob of any power.

Keeping alive at all costs is cancer’s central strategy, in much the same spirit as physicians who make an unquestioned virtue out of keeping patients alive as long as possible, no matter what their circumstances, even when such prolongation of vital functions is far from life-affirming for them and their significant others.

But Death is not the enemy. Death is not in the way. Avoiding death deadens us, but being intimate with death — intimate with our mortality — enlivens and deepens us.

Being intimate with cancer includes being intimate with that in us which would rather avoid death than face it, through all sorts of means, including being obsessively focused on material gain and expansion. But no matter how much stuff we own, we are not safe from death. Accumulating more and more and more is cancer’s way. In stark contrast, opening ourselves, with compassionate clarity, to the inevitability and necessity of death is the way of basic sanity. Sounds akin to apoptosis, doesn’t it?

Apoptosis as a term is of Greek origin, meaning “falling off or dropping off” — as in leaves falling from trees or petals dropping from flowers. An utterly natural letting go this is, untainted by me-centeredness or overly individualized concern. Whether it is conscious or not, apoptosis is sacrifice for the greater good, a dying clearly in the service of Life.

Cancer, be it cellular or cultural, personal or collective, is out of touch with this, fleeing the dying that gives life, estranged from the very wholeness out of which it first arose.

Are we not all dying to live, to really live? We die, and we do not die — this we intuit, right to our core, beyond all of our knowledge.

Like our cells, we inevitably come undone and dissolve (like a cell in the body of humanity), yet also remain present in — and as — the very essence of what persists, eventually letting go of all of our dreams and ambitions and hopes of being an Enlightened somebody, so that we might be present as pure being, at once deeply individualized and emptied enough of ourselves to have room for all.