The World of Fear
Imagine a world where people considered death a taboo subject. In this make-believe reality people would avoid the topic because it’s too unpleasant or depressing. Children would be told that everybody dies, but nobody discusses it in detail. It’s rude to ask about, rude to comment on and certainly not OK to make jokes about. It’s a sombre, dark, unpleasant subject and we’ll keep it that way, thank you very much!
Children growing up in such a world would learn to fear death because all the adults are afraid to talk about it. They try to dress it up with polite phrases like “she’s passed on” and “he’s no longer with us.” The young learn that death is something even grown-ups don’t want to talk about head-on.
A world where death is an unfit topic of conversation would thus breed more people who are afraid to talk about it. They’d talk about “people going to sleep” and disguise the truth. They’d do it out of love, to protect their children from a cold reality. But in doing so, they'd pass the horror on.
A world like that would be one where people are never taught to deal with loss. Where people bury and suppress the fear of death until it stares them in the face and it’s too late. Who would want to live in a world like that?
When I was young I made an assumption. The majority of people died of “old age”. That was the right and natural way of things. It was fair. Dying of some condition or illness was less common and a tragedy. I don’t remember how old I was when I realised there is no such thing as “dying of old age” and that it’s a myth. I think sometime in my early teens? Is that a late age to find out? Sometimes I wonder if everyone else realises the same thing. We sure don't act like it.
Do some people still carry this belief, deep down? Do people feel, in secret, that you’re supposed to die of “old age” or “natural causes” and that anything else is unfair?
The reality is that you die because some part of your body stops working. It just sounds more peaceful to say “she passed away from natural causes” than to state the actual truth “she died because of multiple organ failure”. Nobody dies of old age. They die because being old puts you at more risk.
What I’m going to write about is perceived as a “sensitive subject” because death makes people respond emotionally. We get angry, sad, look for blame and feel anguish. But please remember that I am writing as a human being who has feelings just as colourful as yours. I feel emotions the same way you do and I write with good intentions.
If you can find it in yourself to trust me, to assume I’m honestly trying to give people a glimmer of hope, then read on. But if you are convinced of your point of view and nothing can ever change your mind, let me stop you. There's no point reading something if you've already decided to disagree with it. So feel free to close the window and go elsewhere. But do remember “100% convinced I’m right” is the same as “0% willing to accept I might be wrong”.
Cold, Emotionless Scientist
These last few weeks have been emotional for me, saying goodbye to many beloved classes and, as it happens, attending the funeral of someone I knew.
People have sometimes accused me of being emotionless and I think I know why. I’m sincerely concerned with finding out the truth about the world. I try to ignore my personal preference and what I want to be true. But make no mistake, I feel emotion. I know what it’s like to fall in love, to be rejected, to be jealous, to care about something, to care about someone, to feel terrified, to laugh so hard I can barely breathe and (an emotion very few experience) the deep, contended joy which comes from knowing you are in the right place in your life, doing the right thing.
But when it comes to figuring out the world, I know my emotions get the better of me. It’s the curse of being human that we are desperate for answers but our brains are easily deceived. We’re gullible, we hear what we want to, we go with our gut instincts and so on.
We want to know why things happen but we are so easily angered, envied and enthralled that we forget the plain and simple truth: reality is not a personal choice and believing something isn’t a matter of opinion; you don’t get to object to facts by saying “I disagree”. You have to accept facts, even though it's sometimes horrible.
Some subjects are so charged, so deeply troubling that we find it difficult to view them objectively. Our emotions take over and we go with safe ground, sticking to what we’ve already decided is true. Religion, for instance. Love, politics, children and right at the top of the list; death itself.
Today I want to talk about cancer. The problem is, even the word “cancer” sounds ugly. You probably hear it as some foul, shadowy disease and it makes you angry. You probably know someone who has, or had the condition and your blood boils to contemplate it. Such thinking will eat away at your mind. The anger and resentment you feel about cancer is a cancer itself. One which is just as difficult to treat.
The Human Condition
I’ll state it bluntly. 50% of people will get cancer (check the cancer research UK website for more information). We act as though cancer is rare but it isn’t at all. Smokers are more at risk and there’s a genetic factor but otherwise there is no pattern.
Even hearing the above number sounds wrong though. Half of all people? One in every two?
Not only that, but of the people who do get cancer, 50% will die from it. In other words, cancer causes roughly a quarter of all UK deaths. Not “old age”, cancer.
Heart attacks run on my father’s side (grandfather and great-grandfather) while cancer runs on my mother’s side (grandmother and mother both had it). So the chances are I will probably die of one of these two things. Believe me, I’d rather not die of either, but I’d rather not die at all. I like being alive. It’s wonderful.
Now just think about those numbers for a moment. Cancer is a condition which half the population get. Imagine, just imagine, trying to pin down a cause for something that common. How could you hope to find a clear pattern?
Cancer can affect everyone and anyone. Men, women, smokers, non-smokers, meat-eaters, vegetarians, straight, gay, conservatives, liberals and everything in between. There is no pattern to who gets it. I’ll say that again in bold because it’s crucial to my point:
Cancer is so common there is no obvious pattern to what causes it…how could there be?
Yeah, but my grandma smoked 60 a day and lived to 102
We’ve all heard a story like that. People will proudly announce that they know someone who smoked loads and never got cancer. And it’s completely true. Some people are able to smoke constantly and never suffer any adverse health.
Also, consider Don Gorske, the man who eats nothing but McDonald’s Big Mac meals - three of them every day. And guess what, he’s in good health and not fat. Point is there are no guaranteed cause and effects in Biology.
Smoking does not cause cancer. It’s just a higher percentage of people who smoke that get it. Take 100 smokers and let’s say 80% of them get cancer. That means 20% of your test subject are doing just fine thank you, probably thinking to themselves “see, told you smoking don’t cause cancer!”
STUDY SHOWS HEALTH SCARE CAUSES CANCER!!!
When you read reports in the media about cancer research it’s always dumbed down, but I think people are clever enough to handle the truth. What most studies say is “X might increase your risk of getting cancer,” which you should definitely take note of, but don’t assume it’s a done deal.
For instance, I once spilled a nasty chemical all over my hand during first-year labs. It had a warning on it “strong risk of cancer”. Eight years later and no cancer in my hand. But here’s the thing, if you took 100 people and made them all soak their left hand in cancer-chemicals, several of them probably would develop it. And that’s the key. To understand what causes cancer we have to think statistically, we can’t just talk about the one person we know who smoked and never got ill.
And it works the other way round. If we drink a lot of tap water for instance and then get cancer, we could easily say “look, tap water causes cancer!!!”
We can even go online and find good-sounding research from people who are doctors confirming it. Think I’m joking? I found this website (http://inspiyr.com/top-5-cancer-causes/) where a guy who is a doctor genuinely claims tap water causes cancer. Tap water.
Sounds exciting right? This guy is a lone warrior, the last man standing for truth against the conspiracy of big pharma! He’s fighting business corporations! He’s the underdog! We know the truth about tap water! From now on we only drink bottled milk. Oh wait: (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/healthyeating/10868428/Give-up-dairy-products-to-beat-cancer.html) Apparently milk causes cancer too.
Try something right now. Pick some household food, medicine, item, anything you like, type it into google and follow it with the words “causes cancer”. I just tried it with
Owning a dog
Wearing a bra
Every single one of them has research claiming they cause cancer. Try it, seriously, see what you get. You’ll probably discover most things in your house have someone out there claiming they cause cancer. And of course they do, it’s easy to run a cancer-cause experiment.
Let’s say I suspect scented candles caused cancer. All I have to do is collect a hundred people and ask them if they own scented candles. Let’s say 30 of them do. Well, let’s say 15 of them get cancer (the statistical likelihood). I could then genuinely say “1 in 2 people who own scented candles will get cancer!”
The problem is that cancer is so incredibly common it’s very, very, very easy to point to anything and say “that was the cause”. If you live in a house with at least one other person, the chances are one of you will get cancer at some point. The very fact of being a human means you’re running the risk of getting cancer.
Cancer makes people angry, and when they’re angry they stop thinking clearly. I know it’s tempting to find a blame for cancer. It’s human and natural to get angry because we can’t get angry at the cancer itself. But I promise you, directing your anger toward someone or some chemical is putting it in the wrong place and a waste of your emotions.
If you think GMO crops, food additives, pesticides, deep-fried chicken or whatever are the main cause of cancer then I have a sobering fact for you. The earliest recorded case of cancer comes from 1,600 BC (look up the Edwin Smith papyrus) before any of those things existed.
Cancer has always been around. It’s not a new condition. It’s always been something people have died of and finding some corporation or chemical to blame will not take it away or cure the disease. Funding cancer research on the other hand, just might.
Take your anger and do something with it. Don’t just sit there getting angry at someone whose fault it probably isn’t. Don’t live your life in anger. Accept the much more honest, fact-based truth that cancer just happens. It sucks. But it’s true.
The Story of Joan
Something which nobody understands is a phenomenon called spontaneous remission. Very occasionally people will, for no apparent reason, start getting better from cancer at random. It’s rare but it does happen. Spontaneous, self-curing cancer. Now here’s the story of Joan.
Joan had cancer. She saw her doctor and he couldn’t do anything. She saw a trained oncologist, tried chemo, went for radiotherapy and nothing happened. Medical Science couldn’t help and she was terrified. After exhausting all the usual medical practises, she got desperate and decided to try an alternative therapy.
Her friend told her that chanting a certain word every morning at sunrise while sprinkling water on her wrists was an ancient, mystical cure for all known disease. Joan was desperate so, against her better judgement, she tried it. She tried the water-sprinkle method, feeling silly as she chanted the words every morning at dawn.
But then something happened. Her cancer went away.
She was cured. The doctors couldn’t explain it. There was no apparent reason. The “Scientists” with all their arrogance and confidence and cold clinical trials had done nothing. But her friend’s mystical method had saved her life. She had found a cure for cancer. If only people in the media would listen and trust her. It worked! She was living proof. How else could you explain the fact that she had cancer, doctors had failed, and now as if by magic, it was gone?
Then Joan’s friend, Jill, gets the dreaded news. She has cancer too (half of all people get it). But Joan has this sorted. Joan meets up with Jill and tells her not to see her doctor, to ignore the medical treatment offered. To not bother with seeing a medical professional, forget chemo, radiotherapy and don't ask doctors for help. They want you to get sicker so medicine companies can make more money. She’s got this mystical treatment you see and it will definitely work. Jill is in good hands. Jill is completely safe...
I said earlier you have a 50% chance of getting cancer, which sounds terrifying. If you’ve got a heads/tails chance, how can you avoid it?
Well, I think the answer is a lot more optimistic than people realise. Instead of thinking “50% chance of getting cancer, that means I can’t do anything to prevent it”, think of it like this: “I can’t do anything to prevent it, I might as well enjoy the life I have been given”.
Do you like chocolate cake but you’re afraid to eat it because it might cause cancer? Well, actually it probably makes no difference, so why not have a slice? Do you force yourself to miss out on all sorts of medicines, foods etc. because you’re worried it’ll cause cancer? Well, it probably doesn’t, and you’re missing out on things which could make you happy.
If you spend your time worrying about the fact that you’ll die, you’ll never really live.
The truth is you will die. And there is nothing you can do to change that. You want to live as long as you can of course, but the way to do it is simple. You already know it. Exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, don’t smoke, take drugs or drink much alcohol, keep yourself hydrated and stress-free.
That’s as much as we know, anything else is a guess. But isn’t that kind of liberating to know? That basically, you don’t have to live in fear, at least no more than you would anyway.
There's another truth, which for me provides an antidote to the knowledge that death is certain. It is the truth that we humans are amazing creatures with the capacity for greatness. We have invented anti-viral medication, antibiotics, sterilisation techniques, painkillers, cancer-drugs, beta-blockers and we’re just getting started. The human freight-train of research, intelligence and scientific enquiry will not slow down. I mean come on, we rid the world of plague. The plague, which killed 50 million people…and we beat it!
Since the invention of modern biochemistry and medical research we’ve cured smallpox, leprosy, cholera, syphilis and we’re only warming up. I mean we’re even talking about curing conditions like HIV and depression. How amazing are we?
In just under a hundred years we’ve invented radiotherapy, chemotherapy, surgical techniques and more. Yes, they’re not perfect and people will always get some form of cancer (it’s what cells do I’m afraid) but as our knowledge of Biology and Chemsitry increases so do our treatments. People are surviving because we’re clever enough to think our way out of this problem.
The answer is not to get angry at your potato chips, pesticides and cornflakes. The answer is to study it. The answer to cancer is Science.
Do not be frightened
You will die. I will die. What matters is what we chose to do with our lives while we have them. Make the world a better place, teach people, learn things, make others happy, laugh, love, strive to end suffering, and be kind. If you are religious, live your life for God. If you are an atheist, live your life for the joy of the Universe.
Perhaps there will be an afterlife, perhaps there will not. What we know for definite is that we have a life right now and it matters. Don’t waste it on anger. Don’t fill your heart with venom and blame. Fill it with hope. You have everything to live for. You are part of the human race.
I love science, let me tell you why.