Is Cancer a Sort of Monster?

Reading time: 4 minutes

Leandro de Lima Coutinho

It may seem a bit naive to associate cancer with an imaginary creature that is large, ugly, frightening, and often destructive. However, to understand why we would consider cancer as a monster, we need to first revive a creature from Greek mythology and then recall the etymology of the word ‘cancer’. 

The monster and the crab

Let’s hark back to the myth of Hercules’ second labor, which describes his battle with a hybrid-creature known as the Lernean Hydra. During this battle, the goddess Hera sends a crab called Cancer to compromise Hercules’ victory. Being the wife of Zeus, Hera nurtures hatred towards Hercules because he is the child of Zeus born out of wedlock.  (So let’s ignore Hera’s wrath =D). Amidst the battle, Cancer grabs Hercules’ ankle and brings him to a disadvantage. In response, Hercules turns his attention towards Cancer and deals a blow before ending the battle with the Hydra. 

The crab and Cancer

Now understanding this Greek myth, one might wonder if the fourth sign of the Zodiac has anything to do with ‘cancer’ as we know it today. To address this question, we first need to reflect on the etymology of the word itself. Cancer in Greek is ‘Karkinos’ which means ‘crab’. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, named masses of tumor cells that he observed “karkinos” because the swollen veins through the tissue resembled the limbs of a crab. With this historical insight, one can see a link between the association of cancer and a “monster”.

Cancer in people’s perspective

At this point, I was curious about what  Hippocrates thought those masses of cells to be, and what the true nature of cancer is. To try to answer this question, I did a quick survey of my relatives and friends about “what is the nature of cancer” from their perspectives. As a response to this question, I got very different answers. For example: “cancer is a very grim disease” or  “cancer is about fear, the more you fear, the higher your chances of “getting it”. Whereas others said “you must not say the ‘C word’, because if you say it aloud, you might ‘get’ it”. When I asked my mother “Ma, what is cancer?” she promptly replied: “It was a new beginning  of my life.” I was touched, as she defeated breast cancer herself and is now 7 years cancer-free!. Thus, I noticed that the public opinion about Cancer is quite diverse and each one of them holds some meaning in its own personal context. 

The true nature of Cancer

After hearing the mythological, etymological, and philosophical concepts about cancer I would like to finally describe the nature of cancer in terms of biology.  To start with an analogy, let us imagine a synchronized orchestra of musicians that follow a sheet of music guided by the conductor. The sheet of music would contain all the information related to the song such as its pitches and rhythms. Thus, if there are flaws in the sheet of music, things would not go as expected and the harmony of an orchestra would be lost.  Similarly, our cells read and follow the genetic information in our DNA like life’s sheet music to maintain harmony in our bodies.  The complex yet organized signals shared in our body would ‘instruct’  these cells on how they should ‘read’ the genetic information and function in an appropriate manner, like a conductor leading an orchestra. However, as the harmony of a song is lost when musicians misplay the incorrect sheet music, the same occurs in our bodies. If there are alterations, like mutations, in the DNA of a cell the information is compromised resulting in abnormal cellular behavior and impaired functions. The aberrant cell can grow and multiply uncontrollably by disobeying all the commands sent by the body, thus, giving rise to more abnormal cells. If these cells are not eliminated, they can compromise the balance of the body. All of these events together can culminate into a diseased state within tissues known as cancer. 

Since such cancerous cells can grow autonomously and colonize other parts of the body,  we might indeed imagine cancer as a biological monster. In addition to physiological disease cancer also has a psychological impact – not only on the patients but also on those around them. The fear of receiving a cancer diagnosis, or the dread of the unknown, the fear of getting a specific type of treatment (like chemotherapy), or the ultimate fear of death makes us think of cancer as an overwhelming and dreadful condition. Cancer is ugly, destructive, and definitely frightening, thus, in my opinion, it is entirely appropriate to call cancer a  monster.                                      

Monsters cultivate fear in society, but they also inspire the emergence of heroes ready to fight evil. Like Hercules striking down Hera’s Karkinos, countless doctors and medical researchers dedicate themselves to the fight against cancer, ultimately aiming to defeat that monster once and for all.

Edited by Gabrielle Dardis                  

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