Cancer and the frightening abyss of death

The tree that hides the forest

Annette Lexa, PhD Toxicology

It is easy to see in this frenzy of screening and explosion of patient recruitment in clinical trials a fool’s game that primarily serves industry.
However, it is almost certain that reality is more complex, and this angle of analysis is not only one that can explain this situation, it is only a consequence and not the primary cause.

It seems more and more certain that this much promoted early detection indiscriminately detects cancers with good and poor prognosis. The problem is just that treatments which follow don’t discriminate either (“We are going to cure you of a disease that you don’t have yet”, says a doctor in the France 5 documentary, « In the name of all breasts »).

This leads to over-treating a number of patients with new supposedly “innovative” anti-cancer drugs, extremely expensive and no more effective than those already on the market and whose serious side effects (death, second cancer) are largely unknown to general public.

In terms of public policy, cancer is receiving a great deal of attention, with a certain tropism for women’s cancers, partly due to a captive and docile clientele (see on this same site “Breast cancer screening, the latest avatar of medical misogyny“).

There are equally serious deadly diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease, AIDS, diabetes that do not receive the same attention as cancer through its major National Cancer Plans.  And we are not talking about nosocomial and iatrogenic diseases. It is not a question here of a silence of the body but of a societal silence or even of an indifference or a kind of fatality difficult to explain, assuming that the State’ s vocation in health care is to reduce premature mortality and increase life expectancy of its citizens.

Unlike other pathologies, even the most serious and deadly, cancer is treated apart as if it was ” the devil, the invincible predator “. Because cancer is more than a disease, it is a symbol of extraordinary power.

It replaced plague of the Middle Ages, tuberculosis and syphilis of our ancestors. It represents the devious evil, the silent killer, it seems to arise without any obvious cause (except the proven cases of smoker’s cancer). For experts, it remains extremely difficult to prove causal link between exposure to a substance and appearance of a cancer, as environment and genetics seem to interfere and create favourable conditions for its development until metastasis and death.

Medical imaging tools have only been available for a few decades to confirm diagnosis. In the past, we would die without really knowing what caused the death. Now we still die, but we know from what, and the prognosis is even announced with a staggering techno-scientific coldness (“you only have 6 months to live”).

Medicine has made great progress in oncology, that is not the point. What is important here is to recognize that this progress had little impact on what we modestly call cancers with a poor prognosis (lung cancer, gliomas, sarcomas, acute leukemia, certain skin cancers…). .

So why do we continue to focus so much on the “fight against cancer” all around? There are many equally deadly diseases where we could make huge progress through prevention alone or simply by focusing more on research and national plans.

The fear of the nothingness of death

Cancer collectively crystallizes all our thoughts and taboos about death. Yet our societies have “killed” death by killing God.
Existentialism and atheism (with secularism, which became the state religion in France) have become modern philosophies, markers of progress in the flow of History.

In a materialistic vision, when we consider that there is nothing after death, this death having lost all meaning; all that remains is the fight against this absolute “injustice”. And the fight against cancer has become the latest eschatological fight (concerning the ultimate destiny of  human race) of the postmodern crusaders in a society that has lost any project and common sense.

There are even post-humanist currents of thought that promise disappearance of death (cloning, freezing, transfer of thought from brain to hard disk…).

The discussion about death is therefore now reduced to the “right to” and not to existential questions about meaning of death, whether individual or collective. The individual, the new Man, necessarily emancipated, is supposed to be sent back to himself in the name of his personal convictions about death. And the individual has not necessarily acquired the psychic tools enabling him to take up this personal challenge. He is alone and he is afraid, very afraid and wherever he turns, he no longer finds a satisfactory answer.

If he finds a religion that offers him a turnkey life path, he sometimes signs without hesitation. Is he right? Is he wrong? In any case, we can’t blame him too much in front of sidereal void.

In a completely different vision, which we will call “spiritual” (and not religious) of existence, death is a passage and this deep conviction is lived serenely, calmly, with much less anguish. It creates another relationship of trust in relation to life and death. We may feel sorrow at no longer seeing those we love, of course, but we are convinced that something of ourselves survives beyond the disappearance of our body and our self and we attach extreme moral importance to it, for example. It is a 360° vision of Life from birth to death.

Today, terror, fear is no longer in front of the Last Judgment, like our ancestors from the Middle Ages to 19th century, but in front of the void, the nothingness of death: contemporary funerals are the result (absence of rites, …). This is an unprecedented situation knowing that burial rituals, the first sepultures date back 100,000 years and are the first markers of civilization (even Neanderthal buried his dead).

Asserting that death is nothing like Epicurus, is not true collectively. Individually and collectively it has been the stumbling block to all human life on Earth since Man became aware of his own death. As long as our societies have not transcended this drama that death has become in contemporary societies, we will not be able to get out of this teenage individualism that wants everything right away and especially not to die. There will be no turning back (with the return of traditional religions as they are) but it will be necessary that our societies include and transcend the great monotheistic religions and the other world visions transmitted by the first peoples.

If we are in a position to make this observation, we have no collective answer to date, each one being sent back to himself in front of this dizzying existential question. Death has become a personal matter to which society tries to respond as best it can. And frantic screening for cancer is a technocratic and economic societal response to calm the fear of death.

Biomedicine is still a combat medicine that works on “masculine” war premises. The exorbitant price of anti-cancer drugs, the major cancer plans and their share of “innovative” actions tinged with totalitarian desires that sometimes become ridiculous through obstinacy in reality of death, are result of this vision of the world.

The excesses of obsessive screening aimed at tracking down the slightest allegedly cancerous cell in everyone and by all means of medical imaging in order to “fight” it; are the result of the domination of the small self of the possessive individual, who wants to control everything, anguished by death he cannot control. Worse, like immature teenagers, we have wrapped this too warlike, too virile “fight against cancer” in a dripping pink emotional and regressive marshmallow, aiming to mask the lack of preparation of individuals in the face of death, their daily occupations having totally exempted them from having to reflect on the meaning of their life and death.

Our lives, our distant descent from our Cro-Magnon ancestors, the challenges that await tomorrow’s humanity on a planet that will soon reach 10 billion people, deserve better than that. If, instead of turning inward and allowing ourselves to be taken over by a paternalistic state and a monopolistic economy, each of us starts to find the meaning of our lives, the courage to live, common sense in the face of individual and collective destinies, our Western societies will emerge stronger and will know how to restore meaning in the face of death. Otherwise, scenarios such as The Best of the World await us. We still have the choice, it is up to us to choose today and without delay.

Bibliography guide: 

Bertrand VERGELY , Entretien au bord de la mort , 2015

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