Of cancer, genes and soul-healing

Trying an analogy

Cancer research has been a passion of mine for at least the past ten years – as a medical student, as a doctor, but even now as a Jesuit. I was – am – particularly fascinated by the potential of molecular genetics in targeted cancer therapy: in English, a detailed study of the genes involved in cancer can help us create drugs or therapies which are personalised/individualised for the particular patient. The implications are immense.

And so it is that a recent paper in the world-renowned journal Nature has caught the attention of journalists worldwide, and a molecular genetics amateur such as myself cannot but share the excitement: the whole genetic sequence (genome) of 2658 different tumour samples (representing 38 different cancer types) together with the genome of the ‘normal cells’ they mutated from, have been analysed. The vast library of information this provides can go a long way in shedding light on what drives cancer mutation, what cancer’s weak spots are and so – my area of personal interest – how to tailor the therapy of the single patient depending on the specific mutations of his/her cancer.

This piece of news coincides with a current personal experience, that of teaching catechism to kids preparing themselves for the sacraments of Reconciliation (more commonly – and incompletely – known as “confession”), Holy Communion and Confirmation, and it is particularly for the first of the three that I find a useful analogy in all this talk of cancer, genetics and personalised therapy.

Starting from the very words used. ‘Cancer’ is a taboo word, pregnant with ominous and unforeseeable consequences, at times considered an automatic death sentence by patients. Family members – in their well-meaning but often misguided compassion – may even angrily try to impose silence on a doctor who feels the patient has the right to know their diagnosis. 

Similarly with another taboo word – ‘sin’. Many parents may rather angrily affirm that it’s best not to talk about it with their kids, perhaps (rightly) fearing a return to the traumatising hellfire & brimstone character of some past pastoral styles. And yet it exists, it is true and ignoring it only makes it worse. But what is ‘sin’? Again, the cancer analogy can help us out.

A tumour is essentially a bunch of cells which start reproducing beyond normal limits due to a genetic difference to other healthy cells. In reality, our cells suffer genetic damage (errors in genetic ‘photocopying’ during cell division, solar radiation etc) all the time – but usually, the body’s immune system is efficient at recognising the odd-ones-out and destroys them. In the case of cancer, these ‘mutant cells’ somehow evade the immune system: either because it is too weak, or because it fails to (efficiently) recognise the cancer cells as being different from healthy cells. It thinks they’re “OK…normal…part of me…part of the system…not a threat”. Furthermore, not one tumour is the same as another. In actual fact, a tumour can have within itself several different populations (lineages, or ‘clones’) of genetically different cells – ‘cancer’ isn’t simple, and has no straightforward, one-size-fits-all answer.

Sin is similar: it lives in us and comes out of us, but it is not who we essentially are. Oftentimes, we feel too weak to fight temptation, but we may even be completely blind to sin, not recognising it for what it is (we don’t usually choose what is wrong because it is wrong, but because it appears to be something good) thinking it’s “OK…normal…not a threat”. And yet it can slowly grow, mutate further into a kaleidoscope of different vices/‘clones’ and ‘metastasise’ to other parts of our lives and relationships. 

Continuing the analogy, how can we treat cancer? Certainly not with Zen, herbal tea or – a pet peeve of mine – homeopathy! That said, prior to the advent of molecular genetics, tumours were dealt with in a more ‘blunderbuss’ fashion: other than surgical intervention, a limited variety of chemo- and radiotherapy programmes were on offer in a “one-size-fits-no-one-well” fashion, with serious side-effects. But with molecular genetics, we can get the cancer’s genes to ‘confess’ all – how it mutated, grew, escaped the immune system, what its weak spots are – and the doctor can attentively prescribe a more personalised therapy, more efficacious and hopefully with less side-effects than the old treatments.

We need to go to the ‘doctor’ and seek healing, without making recourse to our DIY ‘home remedies’. But to present ourselves with only a superficial awareness of the ‘cancer’ may still play to our disadvantage. We need to go deep into its roots and recognise it for what it really is, where it comes from, how it has developed, where it has spread to – and the greater the trust we show in ‘telling all’ to a helpful ‘doctor’, the more personalised, effective, gentle the ‘treatment’ is…


Cover photo of @FannyBarboza4 on Unsplash.com

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