We understand complex things by making metaphors for them. For a long time, we explained cancer metastasis by a seed and soil analogy. The cancer cells were like seeds drifting in the body, looking for any fertile soil in some distant organ. Too simple: it could not explain why a cancer primary would always form secondary tumours in the same places, following a predictable pattern. Another analogy was the iceberg. Parts would break off and drift in the body’s ocean. Mini icebergs tend to thaw and disappear, and so too many of the float-away cancer cells are caught and destroyed by the body’s immune system as intruders. But not always. These little icebergs carry some genetic coding within them that ‘fools’ the immune system. They also seem to be pre-engineered to be successful when they turn up at their destinations.

This is why we talk about cancer as a betrayal. The biology we depend upon lets us down, and works against us instead.

One less-understood aspect is why gene-based drug treatments work well on primary tumours, and often hardly at all on secondary tumours. One reason could be that the secondaries are not just clones. They are evolved secondaries. It’s a little bit of Darwinism going on inside you.

A third metaphor is drivers and passengers. Some cancer cells are primary in getting to the destination, but they’re not necessarily the ones that do the damage. Think of it as an armed robbery. The getaway driver isn’t usually the one that shot and killed the bank teller.

It’s a Tarantino-esque metaphor based on Reservoir Dogs where the car contains several crooks on their way to a robbery. The driver may or may not have free will to do what he is doing, but he has certainly underestimated the psychopathic nature of one of his criminal passengers. When they get to the scene of the heist, the psychopath surprises everyone, even those that drove him there, with the horrific brutality of his actions.

Carrying on with the idea of cancer as the body in betrayal of itself, the title of a song called “Body Betrays Itself” needed further investigation. It’s by an artist called Pharmakon, who turns out to be a New York based woman called Margaret Chardiet. It’s not the most soothing of listens, given this genre would be described as noise / electronics/ death industrial music. But the album really resonated with me, and seemed to speak to the screaming horror of realisation that your body is destroying you from within. Something that you don’t go around talking about all the time, assuming you don’t want people running away in fear.

There’s a great quote from Pharmakon on her record label’s web site. She was meant to go on a tour, and ended up instead in hospital losing an organ. Why and what organ isn’t important. What is important are the words about how she became aware of the complex network of systems that are our bodies, and the time gap that occurs when your mind has to accept that one of the body’s systems has failed. She says:

“I felt a widening divide between my physical and mental self. It was as though my body had betrayed me, acting as a separate entity from my consciousness. I thought of my corporeal body anthropomorphically, with a will or intent of its own, outside of my will’s control, and seeking to sabotage. I began to explore the idea of the conscious mind as a stranger inside an autonomous vessel, and the tension that exists between these two versions of the self.”

We’re back to the passenger motif.

I don’t know why she chose the name Pharmakon. It could be from the Ancient Greek word pharmakon (φάρμακον) that means “drug”, “medicine”, or “poison”. It can also mean “sorcery”. Obviously, where the modern word “pharmacy” comes from. But a pharmakós (φαρμακός) in Greek religion is also the ritualistic sacrifice or exile of a human scapegoat or victim. When the crops failed, they’d choose someone (or two), feed them well, then kill them and scatter their ashes in the ocean. I suppose it comes down to whether, as an artist, she feels like she is a drug or a scapegoat outsider, or both.

Once, allegedly, the Egyptian god Thoth (the one with the head of an Ibis bird) offered a gift to the god-king ruler Thamus. Thoth had invented writing, and offered this as a pharmakon for the Egyptian people. He said that his gift would help memory and be the cure for forgetting things. But Thamus rejected the gift. He said that it was not a remedy for memory, but merely a way for reminding. Reminding is not pure memory recall; it can be a mere reconstruction.

So, a pharmakon is both a remedy and a poison. Writing was both a cure and a poison, and was offered to the Egyptians as such. It was indeterminate, or undecided, as to which. By declaring it was a poison, Thamus had decided the pharmakon.

In Plato’s “Phaedrus and Phaedo” this story is the basis for a conversation between Socrates and a student (Phaedrus), in which Socrates tries to convince the student that writing is inferior to speech. The philosopher Jacques Derrida used this story too in his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy”. Derrida is best known for the concept of “deconstruction”, where you start with a text (the pre-text) and look within for the meaning. Derrida argues that Western thought and writing always involves dichotomies or polar opposites. More than that, the other side is always the negative or undesirable version of the first, and where the second is a falling-away from the first. So, Evil is the fall from Good. Writing is the less good version of Speech. Cancer is where the “good” process of Health is replaced by mutant cell division.This is how we deconstruct cancer. The pharmakon of cancer. We cut it out and banish it, like the outsider that it is. But, the gift of chemotherapy is also, literally, a poison.

Last weekend a friend came to visit. He had recently joined Facebook after years of resistance. He came up with the perfect reason why social networks are a pharmakon – a risk and a benefit rolled into one – when he said his previous reason for not joining could be summed up in the sentence “You can document your life, I’m living mine”.