Wednesday, June 15, 2005


A friend of mine just started up a blog - Quicksilver - that has as its framework a commentary on the daf yomi - the daily reading of one page of the Talmud. His commentary is very interesting, touching on many issues of the day as well as the Talmudic back-and-forth. His latest post addresses the question of "What causes cancer?" Since I've had many friends and relatives succumb to cancer, this question is of concern to me also.
What causes cancer? Why do these people get those cancers? For half a century, such questions have nagged us. The search for explanation. In the 1950s, we asked, does smoking cause cancer? Later: are there synergistic factors? (E.g., tobacco and asbestos combined.) What about pesticides? Are there cancer “hotspots” caused by hazardous waste sites? We seem to be straddling scientific research and a political / culture war. I suspect many of us gravitate to one pole, e.g. cancer is caused or facilitated by diet and lifestyle, or by toxic pollution, or by our genetic inheritance. But we are all far from able to explain the decline or rise of particular types of cancer.

I wish we could figure out what causes various cancers, and learn how to stop them. It's such an evil disease to die of. (I know, how can a disease be "evil"? "Evil" is a human category, our way of judging the morality of human actions. But still, cancer feels evil to me - especially when a friend is suddenly stricken with cancer and dies a horrible death).

Yesterday evening I took a bicycle ride over to Ithaca Falls, one of our local waterfalls (in the city of Ithaca alone there are two waterfalls - Ithaca Falls and Cascadilla Falls). The whole area of the falls looks like it was scoured out by last winter's heavy snow and cold. The path of Fall Creek flowing from the falls towards Cayuga Lake has shifted. And instead of soil and plants & trees growing from the bank, it's now mostly big and little stones. The pool just under the falls appears to be bigger also, and yesterday a family was swimming there. As I walked back from the falls to my bicycle, I couldn't help but think about the transience of life, how ephemeral human life (and everything else) is. The Fall Creek neighborhood, where I live, is built on the flood plain for Ithaca Falls. Floods are now mostly contained by various measures, so only some people this winter had their basements fill with water - but what about in a hundred years? Will the neighborhood even exist? My house was built in 1870 - will it make it another hundred years?

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