Lasers In The Jungle

I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t by chance read his obituary last year…and it’s ironically stupid of me to have forgotten his name…

But there was a countryman of mine, you see, who saw viral liver cancer wiped out in his lifetime, and no one’s ever heard of him.

Yes: viral liver cancer. Sounds bad, doesn’t it? But it’s gone now. What it was, was a particular strain of hepatitis, that drastically increased the odds of a person getting cancer once they’d been infected with it. Gone like smallpox, now, thank God. And we don’t really think of it, but there are a lot of cancers that we human beings used to fall like grass before on a pretty regular basis, that are gone now too. Stomach cancer used to be a huge problem, for example; all over the world, little poppy-shaped vials turn up at archaeological sites, in the damnedest places…once filled with what is still our very best painkiller, more precious than diamonds, and the only folk remedy there ever was that was capable of dealing with cancer-level pain. How long the stuff took to circulate out to the far reaches of the globe, I can’t say. Probably a very long time indeed. But, what’re you gonna do? Some things can’t be helped just by boiling a little willow bark…

Anyway, a friend of mine has cancer. She just told me about it.

It’s cervical cancer. Caused in something like 90% of cases (as we’ve all just recently been told) by the Human Papilloma Virus, somewhere along the line, sometime, maybe a long time ago. Who knows? That HPV, it’s pretty insidious. Ubiquitous, too. I mean it’s always just been there, drifting through the population like a deep ocean current, a gyre, part of our regular rhythms, unmappable because universal…

But here’s the point: in our lifetimes, yours and mine, HPV seems fated to become as low a risk factor as is that stripe of hepatitis that used to cause the liver cancer way back in the rustic days of the 20th century, and for that my friend could (and, I hope, will) draw a little solace. She’s the last of the HPV-cancer patients, or anyway just about the last…there are no ten-year-old daughters out there who will one day have to tell their mothers what the doctor said, or at least, there are a hell of a lot fewer of them.

90% fewer of them, to be precise.

Doesn’t really help my friend. On the other hand, she may end up being fine, you see: her treatment may well be 100% effective. Anyway that’s what I’m concentrating on just now: that she may well make a complete recovery.

But at the moment it’s difficult stuff to process. The last two days it was almost all I could think about. Today I thought about it much less, and when I did I wondered why I wasn’t thinking about it more, because I knew I still had some more work to do on it, some more interior freaking out to perform. But you always do wonder why, in this situation, don’t you? Inevitably, any kind of mortality-adjustment like this involves occasional weird gaps of inattention and unconcern, rapidly chased by feelings of loss…

Loss of the feeling that you know you should be feeling. But that, inexplicably, you aren’t.

Which is of course very normal stuff, in fact very textbook stuff. You just can’t maintain the focus, you see. The whole thing takes a certain unalterable lapse of time to slog through, because for part of that time you’re going to be asleep, and for another part you’re going to be on autopilot, and for another part you’re going to be showering or shaving. This is of course in addition to the part of the time when you’re going to feel huge waves crashing down on you. But, that’s only – it can only ever be – part of the time. Yesterday I shaved faster than I probably ever have in my life, cut the hell out of my face, ran to get a couple of beers in order to keep myself from swearing at the furniture and the calendar, tried to reconstruct an eerie dream I’d had about toasters and taxicabs and the Godelian interpretation of General Relativity, and perhaps somewhat unwisely read the full run of Miracleman. A staggering day. But today I watched a hockey game, boiled an egg, thought about cherry blossoms and firewood, read Action Philosophers, and then magically found myself at the liquor store afterwards anyway, just on autopilot, and had to think about what I was there for…before the magic word came to me: tranquilizer.

But, did I really need one?

Hell, who knows. Presumably the work of adjustment is still going on, somewhere belowdecks, so the answer’s probably yes. I tellya, though: watch out for that Miracleman stuff. It packs an extra punch, sometimes.


Where was I?

Oh yes: lasers in the jungle. I suppose everyone knows by now that stomach ulcers aren’t caused by too much spicy food, or even by stress, but by a bacterial incursion into the fine machineries of the gut. A simple course of antibiotics, and the ulcer’s gone. Hurray! But what most of you probably don’t know, just because…I mean, who thinks about such things, who isn’t paid to?…is that it’s possible that osteoporosis may follow the same model. I believe it’s another one of my countrymen, a Czech-Canadian from Montreal if I’m remembering right (remember, according to Canada Post, “Canada” means “the village”…”the neighbours”…”the houses over there”…), who’s been working on osteoporosis from this angle for the last few years. No idea what stage the research is at, or if it’s all turned out to be a buncha crap, or if it’s still going great guns, but the idea is, or anyway the goal was: just swallow this, ma’am, and not only will the osteoporosis be gone, it’ll be reversed.

Quite amazing, huh?

These kinds of things are actually going on all the time, you know. Let’s look at stomach cancer again, for a moment: very differently from stomach ulcers, apparently for a long time it was caused by what people ingested. Here in Paradise, we’re taught that at one time Europe’s only spice was salt, and we tend to look at our salt shakers differently after we hear that, but we think perhaps that it wouldn’t be so, so bad. But of course, not everyone had salt in the Europe of a couple hundred years ago. That’s the thing. Salt was expensive. Nowadays the stuff is literally at elbow and foot, very possibly the supreme sign of our wealth as a society…but when it wasn’t…

I’ve heard people used pinches of bread mould to flavour their food, sometimes, in those elder days.

And maybe it isn’t true, that they did.

But you can see how stomach cancer might have been more common than it is now, if they did.

Or, even if they didn’t! Here we are in a future filled with refrigerants and pasteurizers, and maybe we forget that they have not been the eternal backdrop of the human race throughout time. If something smells funny in my kitchen, I toss it out. If a sandwich or an egg sits on my counter in the summer heat for a few hours, I send it to its final resting-place in the landfill. I can always get another egg, or another sandwich. I am very safe, and don’t even know it. At least, I’m safe from random outbreaks of cancer…!

At least…uh, well now that I think about it…

…But you know, actually, the rates of all cancers over time are diminishing, always, like a reverse stock market. It’s true. And it’s quite remarkable. We’re all quite lucky. Well, the human race is lucky as a whole, I guess, if not necessarily uniformly lucky on an individual basis; unfortunately the curse of everyone’s life is that they either arrived in it ten years too early, or ten years too late…nothing to be done about that, though. You just can’t help that at all. Some people had polio. I’ve heard that was because rising hygeine standards limited the amount of stray fecal matter in the human diet. Right? Wrong? I don’t know; it’s just what I heard. But my point is, it’s always something, and yet we do pretty all right with these “somethings”, and if we had twice the lifetime that the Bible apparently guarantees us…well, we’d still be either ten years too early or ten years too late, but we’d see a few more crutches thrown away between those margins, so…

Anyway, I just wanted you to know: there’s a lot of good stuff going on out there. A lot of breakthroughs being made, that’ll be as swiftly forgotten once they’re part of our everyday human backdrop, like the purple sugar cube and the hum of the fridge kicking in at midnight and the HPV shot girls get at seventeen, as has the name of that fellow from Ontario, the thrice-blessed killer of viral liver cancer. Meanwhile, my friend’s sick, and I’m kind of still getting used to that idea. Gee, I hope I get fully used to it sometime before she’s cured in May, otherwise our June barbeques will be a little awkward, eh? What with the needless talk of death and all…

So remember: overall, in statistical terms, life isn’t fair to us people at all. It’s significantly better than fair, and that’s the truth. We’re doing good. Life is swell.


Onward and upward, I guess, damn it.


2 responses to “Lasers In The Jungle

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