Monday, March 18, 2013

A pastoral, cultural perspective on cancer...

Cancer killed 74,529 Canadians in 2009, making it the country’s top cause of death.
Every hour of every day 20 Canadians are diagnosed with cancer, every hour of every day eight Canadians die of cancer. (National Post, March 17, 2013)
The research on causes, treatments and prevention of cancer focuses mainly on the biological, the genetic, and the chemical, radioactive and surgical, with little, if any, research into the broader social, cultural, environmental and spiritual causes. Additionally, males have been dying at rates significantly exceeding females, from cancer, since the National Post figures start in 1982. There are, of course, obvious locations where, for example, chemical pollutants are so intense and so toxic that cancer rates have spiked, for example, in what was formerly known as "love canal" on the shores of the Niagara River and Lake Erie. Another example, more recent, is among the Chipeweyen whose cancer rates and deaths have spiked as a result of the toxic pollutants flowing through their community along the Athabaska River. They, and researchers who support them, point the finger directly at the "tar sands" oil project.
While there is legitimacy to the forms of research currently underway, there is also considerable evidence that points to the notion that cancer is, in part at least, a lifestyle disease. By that statement I am not refering to the coincidence of smoking with lung cancer. Rather, I mean that one's biography is too often a significant incidator that the body has responded or will respond, by turning against itself, a description that applies to most cancer cases. An obvious example is a young man who, at 29, suffers from testicular cancer, lives alone, has no social network, and spends all of his days grooming horses.
His own desperation that the severity of his condition is, or could easily be, directly linked to his lifestyle, his loneliness, his isolation tells his story in the most authentic way possible. However, his treatment team, including his oncologist and nursing staff, focus on his need for radiation treatment, even before he has successfully banked healthy sperm, for a life after cancer, should he be fortunate enough to have one. Following treatment, the option of fatherhood will be forfeited forever, given his impending sterility.
The statistics tell one element of the truth of the disease: that too many men and women in Canada are going to die from the ravages of this disease, no matter that treatment interventions have increased the rates at which people live longer with their disease in remission, or under control.
What they don't depict, however, is that we all live in a culture that is hurtling headlong toward a false brass ring, that is supported through billions of dollars of propaganda also benefiting from the "leningen march of the human ants" toward our own demise. We are indoctrinated on a diet of lies, misrepresentations, dissemblings, distortions, false accusations, imperfect investigations, siloed academic voabularlies and equations....all of them, not necessarily designed by some amoral force, but nevertheless, a product of "economic, social, political and professional achievement/success" that is completely inconsistent with the needs, aspirations, imaginations and hopes and dreams of the digits whose almost unconscious march is killing us.
We are fed a diet of bullying, competing, currying favour, sycophancy, lining up, following all directives, painting inside the lines by number, gaming, texting, preying upon the most vulnerable, graduating, adopting the culture of the part-time workplace, then the university, then the full-time workplace, integrating the faith dogma's of our families, deciding on the "right" partner amid the narrowest of options, parenting "de-rigeur" using the latest parenting guru's latest opinions from the most recent book, adopting the "life-style" of social role models, like Oprah, or some other model of success, affluence, and power....all in a mad race to find acceptance, relevance, status, the standard and typical family with house, car, television and digital equipment....
throughouth having suppressd, denied, avoided, or even medicated our strongest impulses that might have seemed "outside the lines" of some criterion of acceptability, whether from our parents, our church, our teachers, our coaches, our employers, or especially our peers.
If we have an artistic "bent" or talent, too often it is ridiculed, marginalized (as are we), shoved underground, or even tortured out of use. If we have a different colour of skin, or a different ethnicity, or a different religion from the majority, we too are marginalized, out of some kind of fear, similar to the fear that drives the march for conformity, propriety, political correctness and morality.
If we are poor, we already know that we are part of the underclass, whose values and needs are the result of our own failure "to take responsibility" even though we have not yet found out how that happened, even while the judgements are flying around us.
If we are poor, of a different skin colour, and considered part of the "savage" tribe, however that might be applied, we are not only marginalized but we are evil, by definition. "Evil" could mean something as simple as we do not follow the same time addiction that is at the centre of the "insider" culture, the one characterized by the voluntary and even eager enlistment in the "game" of winning, on the "inside". And for that we are labelled "lazy, slothful, lacking ambition and worthless."
In every culture and society, there is a hierarchy of people, and our commitment to the ostrasizing of the "savage" the "native" the "First Nations" led by our religious organizations who condemned them for their sinful ways, is one of the hallmarks of our desperately depraved culture and ethic.
And this from Chris Hedges, demonstrating the depths to which we have fallen in our addiction to power, money and denial of responsibility: (from March 17, 2013)
If, as Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” then we are a nation of barbarians. Our vast network of federal and state prisons, with some 2.3 million inmates, rivals the gulags of totalitarian states. Once you disappear behind prison walls you become prey. Rape. Torture. Beatings. Prolonged isolation. Sensory deprivation. Racial profiling. Chain gangs. Forced labor. Rancid food. Children imprisoned as adults. Prisoners forced to take medications to induce lethargy. Inadequate heating and ventilation. Poor health care. Draconian sentences for nonviolent crimes. Endemic violence.

While our death certificates may have under 'cause of death'... "cancer", we all know that we are participating in what someone from another planet might diagnose as a cultural case of thanatos, the wish to die.
We are a death-denying and a death-defying culture; we do not speak about the final curtain unless and until there is no other option, and the patient is in his or her final days. And we know, reinforced by theorists like Carl Jung, that whatever we deny will have extra power and influence over us, because we have pushed it aside. We have developed elaborate rituals in our attempt to cope with the death of our family members and our friends. However, we have not developed a similarly elaborate network of supports to bring death out of the closet. We do, however, see death marching in large headlines following the violence that is committed by some of us against others, even others innocent and without link to the source of the violence. And we continue to allocate huge amounts of public funds to our own killing machines, known euphemistically as "the military" or "homeland security" or "national intelligence" as our way of keeping others from harming us.
Meanwhile, we are fully engaged in promoting laws, public debates and political campaigns around the "citizens' right to defend," including the right to shoot first if "threatened" by whatever body movement or hand object that another might present, even something as simple as a wallet, in the case of the shooting by police of a young black man in New York. We even have heard such simplistic theories that point to "2% of all people as evil and thereby as criminal" while the rest are normal, and without criminality...a theory which merely distances the adherent from his own potential to commit cruelty or a crime against another, something we all share.
It is not that pursuing some academic field, hopefully one that attracts one's interest and talent, and practicing that profession upon graduation is, in itself, killing us. It is the degree to which we are urged to both pursue and to practice that is under the microscope here.
It is also the degree to which we reduce too many features of our lives, and the lives of our culture to simplistic dichotomies, to binary either-or's, and then wonder why there is no texture, a code word for complexity or artistry or the aesthetic in our lives.
In short, we are bent on killing ourselves in bending our personhood to fit a model of success that is simply incompatible with our capacity to endure the "active" rigours while sacrificing the more passive, reflective, integrative and spiritual pursuits that take a lot of time.
We have become a society of "bottles of beer" instantly and mass-produced as well as consumed, for the instant relief of whatever is our latest anxiety, suffering, pain, loss or defeat. And we are not restricting our medication to beer; we have oceans full of pharmaceuticals, and inducements/seducements to activities that are designed to distract us from our minor problems while we walk, fully asleep, through our more profound, and more rich and buried "treasures" from which the gold of our former pain can only be extracted.
President Bartlett, in The West Wing, is unwrapped from his cloke of public secrecy that surrounds his Multiple Slerosis condition, prior to his re-entry into the campaign for a second term. His Chief of Staff, Leo, himself a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, wants the matter kept out of the public eye. Leo opposes a Congressional censure, whereas the President looks up at Leo and utters words to this effect:
"Nobody takes responsibility any more, Leo, and I was wrong!"
When Scott Peck went looking for those responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, he walked throughout the Pentagon without success. No one would accept responsibility. Nevertheless, he knew, as do we all, that someone made the decision to carry out that massacre, and issued orders to others to follow.
When a young father, in the act of changing the diapers of his newborn daughter in the back-seat of his car is invaded by bullets that kill his daughter and wound him, leaving him in mourning for his deceased baby, as happened in Chicago last week, (or we could refer to hundreds of similar avoidable and preventable and tragic acts of violence) and the culture that breeds such acts, along with a culture that refuses to unpack its own attitudes, including normal fears, of death, while at the same time, inserting pain and anxiety in mourning as a psychiatric illness requiring treatment, we have lost our way! And when the people responsible for such an insertion are, to put it mildly, among the most "educated" in our culture, given years of post-graduate training in psychiatry, we have to lose confidence in our most precious processes like education, and the public policy and public funding that supports the infrastructure of the higher education processes.
And when the people we elect are driven by their own fears of being "primaried" into defending assault weapons for the defence of family, and into defending magazines that include thirty-to-forty rounds of ammunition for those assault weapons, as an integral part of the American tradition and culture of freedom, under the Second Amendment, we have lost our way.
We have, in short, become the victims of our own denials...of death, of fear, of failure and of not fitting it.
And we do not read such an analysis in the scientific journals attempting to document the most recent and most worthy research projects into the relief or prevention of cancer. And we are not about to read them there, anytime soon!
They are "off-topic" coming, as they do from a non-scientific point of view, an unscholarly perspective, without peer review, and without academic credentials elevating them to the status of "worthy of consideration" by those whose professional careers including both the treatment and prevention of cancers. These findings are not supported by statistical analysis that would link any of the denials to the generation of cancer and thereby they cannot be supported by any public body seeking respectability and credibility as a research laboratory.
And, since they come from what could be called a "pastoral" perspective, that looks at things a little differently from that of the pure scientist, they are not "expert" enough to be integrated into the body of public literature.
Nevertheless, there is hope.
On the front page of the Globe and Mail, immediately following the election of Pope Francis I, the headline read, "The Outsider" in a pointed reference to the radical choice of one from South America, a Jesuit as well, and now, one who is calling on the world, both collectively and individually, to exercise forgiveness and to be more merciful.
There are signs that, in spite of our massive military machine, linked to our even more massive global economy, and the disintegration of many dictatorships, and the conflicts that erupt from terrorist acts of martyrdom, and the millions of starving, diseased, and dispossessed, we have so far evaded nuclear war, so far evaded the destruction of Israel, evaded the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran and other Middle East countries, and so far evaded the complete collapse of failed states like Pakistan, North Korea and others...we can still hear a still small voice from the balcony of St. Peter's calling for some reflection and a return to some new consideration of what is important, what is necessary and what cannot be denied, the truths of the human condition, including the stampeding of cancerous cells around the world.

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