Back in the late 90s, as part of my doctoral training at SUNY Buffalo, I did a psycho-oncology practicum at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute and was later briefly employed in their pain clinic as a clinical research assistant. Naturally, in those days cancer was very much on my mind (as well as the interplay of pain and time perception). It was back in those days that I finally dropped the hyphen of distinction from the notorious mind-body dichotomy: it became starkly self-evident to me that both words (body and mind) refer to one and the same system. It was also around that very time that I harvested my first crop of conclusions from my readings of Eastern philosophies and one of these conclusions was the following: anything that is alive is also conscious. I had long realized that consciousness – since it existed – was material (this, of course, was the vestige of my growing up in a society that built its science on the premise of dialectic materialism). But what I was just beginning to realize was that not only was consciousness material (consciousness = matter) but that matter too was consciousness (matter = consciousness). I began to realize that consciousness is not a function of certain material organization but an inherent property of matter and that it manifests exactly in proportion to its organization. So, from this standpoint, it was suddenly clear to me that, of course, animals are conscious and not plain bio-automata; it was similarly beginning to crystallize for me that cells too are conscious (since they are alive, self-maintaining, and reactive).
So, all of this was very much on my mind when it suddenly dawned on me that the cancer cells “behave” narcissistically. Indeed, in reading up on cancer I began to see that the cancer cells “act” in a highly “self-serving” manner. As they go rogue, they “differentiate” away from their environment like run-away teens. As I was drawing these parallels in my mind it occurred to me that, perhaps, these analogies and metaphors weren’t analogies or metaphors at all, but the actual picture of what happens. At that moment I formulated to myself the following hypothesis: cancer is cellular narcissism or, put differently, cellular egocentrism.
Now, let me clarify exactly what I mean: when I say “cancer is cellular narcissism” I do not in any way mean that a person with cancer must be a narcissist. Understand: this hypothesis of “cellular egocentrism” is not your typical mind-body hypothesis in which you postulate that the body reflects the dynamics of the mind. Not at all. I am not saying that people with narcissism are prone to cancer. I am not aware of any such data nor am I proposing this hypothesis. My hypothesis was (is) entirely different: a cancer cell is a self-serving cell, a cell that breaks away from the harmony of the whole-organism and begins to build its own life within the medium/environment of its parent-organism. In other words, a cancer cell dis-identifies from its home-body and begins to treat it as a host for its own existential path. So, once again, at the risk of beating this horse to death, let me clarify this once and for all: I hypothesized that cancer was cellular egocentrism, literally, and not a cellular manifestation of psychological egocentrism.
So, having had the thought, I jotted it down (as I am in a habit of doing; this was pre-blogging days, now I am far too quick to share my ideas) and forgot about it. Why? It was just too crazy, even to my own inspection. Plus, I was beginning to focus on the logistics of post-graduate life (getting a residence, getting a job, getting a license, and all that real-life jazz). Time has passed, I began to lose my interest in behavioral medicine/health psychology, got involved with substance use issues, and, long story short, forgot all about my “egocentric cell” hypothesis.
Which brings us to this morning. Coffee in hand, I go to New Scientist on my smart phone and see the following article: “Tumors Could Be the Ancestors of Animals” by Colin Barras. I plunge in.
Here is the key excerpt:
“A tumour is not a collection of independently evolving cells, like bacteria, with almost infinite potential to evolve resistance to therapy. It is a group of largely cooperating cells.”
“Cancer is thought to be triggered by a malfunction of the genes that try to hold back this uncontrolled replication. But Lineweaver and Davies go further: cancer is not simply linked to the evolution of animals - it was the earliest animals. They believe these organisms had cracked the problem of runaway replication but they still lacked total control over cell growth and proliferation. The hypothesis helps to explain some of the more unusual features of tumours, says Lineweaver. Some cancer cells build a network of blood vessels, a process known as angiogenesis, to bring nutrients into the tumour - evidence of tumour-wide cooperation. Other cells gain the ability to spread to other tissues, or metastasise, which is difficult to explain if all cancer cells act independently.”
Having read this, naturally, a bulb goes off in my head again and I recall my graduate school insight: “Cancerous cell is a self-serving cell! Cancer is ego-centrism on cellular level. Cancer is cellular narcissism.”
Let me walk you through this again. According to the model described in the article, cancer is not just a collection of independently operating mutants, but a system within a system, “a group of largely cooperating cells” that is building its own home within its former home-base, lining up nutritional plumbing as the cells “build a network of blood vessels” (angiogenesis) “to bring nutrients into the tumour.”
“Wow!” I say to myself. I pour myself another cup of coffee and write this. You know the rest of the story – it is you reading this bewildering possibility – the possibility that a tumour is not just a disease-process but a kind of life-form, a birth, if you wish, within the system of your bodymind.
My wife astutely asked me: why write this up? Two reasons, I said: it’s fascinating and – here comes my old jingle – compassion. Viewing even cancer as a kind of cellular birth of a group of cells that is trying to strike out on its own is the beginning of appreciating the omnipresence of consciousness all around us. If a group of cancerous cells can be conceptualized as a cooperative micro-life-unit, then how can we keep on ignoring the consciousness of macro-life-forms all around us (from the animals we unnecessarily kill to fellow human beings to the planet itself)? Of course, it is a rhetorical question. I know how. Explanation is easy: like cancerous cells building their own life-path without the consideration of the larger whole, we too – on a macro-level – are mindlessly caught up in our own ego-proliferation.
Chew on that, Fellow Composite!
What do I mean by “composite”? I mean you, I mean me, I mean us. We are all composite systems, wholes made of parts and, at the same time, parts of greater wholes. This is an ancient meme: one is all, all is one. A cancerous cell that loses sight of the fact that it is part of a bigger organismic whole is cutting the very branch it is sitting on (like any parasite that kills its own host). Same with us – psychologically, socially, geo-politically. As soon as we lose sight of our interrelatedness, of our membership in the greater whole, we become psychologically, socially, politically cancerous – we become zero-sum, with our egos suddenly pitched against the wellbeing of the rest of what is.
I can certainly relate to the mind that would soberly object: “But, Pavel, aren’t you anthropomorphizing stupid little cells?!” And I, having spent most of my conscious (?) life with the same mindset, would patiently object in return: “Fellow Composite, understand that you are nothing more than a group of these very lowly cells cooperating with such bewildering harmony that – from the pinnacle of your awareness – you can’t see the footing of this cellular pyramid that you are!”