Cancer 10: foreign bodies

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Cancer 10: foreign bodies

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good health · Tuesday 15 Jun 2021
Tags: Cancer
On Monday I started the preparation for the op on July 7th, which will take this foreign body from my body.

Except that it’s not really a foreign body. It may be an unwelcome development, but it’s still undoubtedly mine.

And there again is that dualism, that possessive idea, as if I owned my body in much the same way I own the laptop I’m writing this on. In truth it’s not “mine” but “me”. I’ll talk about this habit of mind in a bit.

The body beautiful
This morning I went out for a 54km ride on my bike, the furthest I’ve been on it. It was a beautiful route, starting out through the nature reserve by Rye Harbour, taking in the glistening sea, before turning inland through the gorgeous valleys that cut through the hills between Winchelsea, Beckley, Wittersham and Appledore. There’s quite a few climbs involved, and at the end of the ride my watch reported that I’d consumed something over 950 calories. When telling me to lose a bit of weight the consultant was dismissive of exercise as a dietary aid. I can only think that he was assuming when I spoke of exercise he was imagining some low intensity stuff for an hour in the gym (I’ve always hated gyms). When combined with a changed food regime it’s got to help hasn’t it?
Anyway I’ll probably get neurotic now about weighing myself, something I’ve barely done in the last forty years and only then under some kind of duress.

Annoyingly the need for pre-op isolation means I’ll have to give up my cycling from next week. I’m not altogether convinced of the rationale for this: I choose routes with limited traffic and hardly come near another human being. But I’ll do as I’m told. I think I’m probably going to become one of those patients who sits helpless and compliant under medical advice, the flipside of happily having spent most of my adult life away from any medical interventions.
Back to dualism
I imagine it’s very normal for an illness to make us feel the body is somehow an appendage to our minds, our real selves. It’s an idea with an ancient history, and a difficult one to shake off. I’d be curious to know whether blind people feel their minds are in their heads in the same way that I think the sighted tend to, and I say that because I’m guessing that the primacy of vision in so much of how we normally experience the world pushes us to think that it’s all happening behind our eyes.
As far as we can tell most mental activity happens in the brain, but there are some indications in neuroscience that other parts of the body are involved in intellection, which would seem in a way to reflect ancient esoteric beliefs in chakras and other pseudo-physical systems or concepts. As I understand these ideas however they don’t get past the basic Cartesian problem of where the soul/mind and body might meet (Descartes decided it was at the pineal gland). In other words they insist that the soul/mind exists separately from the body. I’ve come to doubt that.
Limits of neuroscience
It is equally apparent that much neuroscientific discussion is philosophically naïve, unwisely equating the discovery or observation of processes that accompany mental acts with the acts themselves. Noticing what happens in different parts of the brain when we remember something could be clinically invaluable, but it doesn’t mean in any real sense that you’ve now “discovered” memory, and as I understand it the complexity of those processes means they can’t be extracted or replicated: the power to transfer the mind to other media is likely to remain the domain of science fiction.

Neuroscience will I'm sure continue to make strides, but the more we know, the more the complexity of the brain reveals itself, and doesn't go away.

At the same time this work has underlined how fundamentally what we understand as mental processes are dependent on physical processes. However difficult it remains to conceptualise what we actually mean by “the mind”, we can say that it is embodied. It seems unlikely that those processes could continue without the body.
This is realistically a problem for religious ideas about any kind of afterlife, though I suppose you could still claim that the soul was something else again and lived on: I’m not sure what this would mean, or how it could constitute something we could recognise as the persistence somehow of our identity (and if it didn’t mean that, why would we care about it?)
Whose body is it anyway?
Having said all that, my point is a simpler one, that the sense we have of our bodies as an appendage to our minds might not stand up to any real scrutiny, but it is a very natural and instinctive way to think of ourselves in the world. When part of the body starts to malfunction, we commonly feel that this malfunction is something beyond us, and that’s important if we are to accept the occasional necessity for amputation (though I imagine equally that you might continue to feel you’d lost a part of your self).

The notion of a tumour as a foreign body sits behind the common “battling cancer” metaphor I criticised in an earlier blog, and while I would dearly love to know that my bowel was free of these multiplying cells, I’m equally sure that the best way to regard the tumour is to see that it is part of me, that dealing with it requires a measure of acceptance, as well as the recognition that this experience will (and should) change who I am, I hope for the better.

It’s certainly made me look differently at bread.

Perfect harmony
On a final, related point, on Saturday I was able to perform our gig as part of the Equator Garden Festival with my amazing friend Maiuko and brilliant fellow musicians, Alexander and Gabriel Keen, and Elias Kacamanolis (hence the image at the top). It was the first outing for this new lineup and the first performance of any kind for Maiuko’s quintet since the Margate Jazz festival two years ago. Being on stage again before a live (and happily appreciative) audience was truly a joy.

I imagine all musicians dream of a perfect technique, that perfect harmony of mind and body, where you can imagine a succession of notes, and just play them. When it eludes us this is another common way in which we feel that our body is letting down our minds. But just as drawing well demands a more rigorous way of looking, the problem is as much in developing the listening imagination so you can hear the notes clearly. Of course there may be limits in your physical technique as well, but it has to start in the mind. Once again a mind/body dualism isn’t the most helpful way of thinking about how we move through the world and make ourselves at home here. I'll keep listening (and looking).
And thanks to Mary Foster (my Mary) for the image.

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