Yesterday, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys died. Of cancer. He was 47. I wasn’t much of a Beastie Boys fan, but it’s sad that a young man died of cancer, nonetheless. And it makes me wonder.

I am 47. Cancer doesn’t run in my family. My grandmother had it, but as far as I know she’s the only one. Her son, who is 75, smokes two packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day. No cancer. I grew up in Florida. We didn’t have SPF sunscreen, we had cocoa butter. So a few years ago I went to a dermatologist for a thing on my face and was told that it was nothing and that based on their thorough examination, plus all the other variables, I will likely never have skin cancer. *But Monday I’m going back to a dermatologist for a thing on my chest. When you get to be a certain age, you don’t take chances. Especially when you grew up in Florida. Especially when it comes to cancer.

At its core, cancer is the reproduction of malignant cells. Or rather, cells that contain bad code. When the bad code reproduces, it overtakes cells with good code. As this process accelerates within the body, very bad things happen. According to the World Health Organization, cancer, as a concept, is the leading cause of death worldwide – accounting for 13% of all deaths on the planet each year. Since the 1970s, our species has spent 200 billion dollars trying to cure it. And while we have made great strides in prevention and the actual cure of some forms of cancer, the disease is still a great unknown.

If you’re read this blog with any frequency, you know that I quit drinking 21 years ago. I also quit smoking a few months back. Both times were the result of divine intervention. Whether you believe in the idea of God doesn’t matter to me. I do. Still, I don’t push it on anyone. God has always been a personal thing with me. Yes, some religions preach that you need to spread the idea of God in order to do His will. But I don’t. If you want to believe, believe. If you choose not to, great. And frankly, I don’t care if you silently judge me for being a weak person because I do believe. You see, the idea of God is mysterious. It’s as big as the universe, and as small as a strand of DNA. In fact, if you look up the word ‘omnipotent’ in the dictionary, there’s a picture of George Burns. So recently when my daughter asked about God, I talked to her about the universe. Try talking to your kid sometime about the idea of the infinite. It’s not easy. Hell, it’s not easy for most adults to wrap their brains around. Anyway, we talked about the far reaches of the universe and how humans can’t even see the edges – even with our most powerful telescopes. That we can’t even imagine how big the universe actually is. Convinced that she was good and confused, I told her that God holds the universe in the palm of his hand. End of discussion.

God is a mystery. Cancer is a mystery. No, I’m not suggesting that God is cancer. Nor am I implying that God wants us all to die of cancer. But the thought that cancer isn’t meant to be ‘solved’ has definitely crossed my mind over the years. Look, I get it, we humans are pretty dang smart. We’ve learned to fly without wings. We’ve turned infertile people into parents. We are good at diagnosing and solving problems. But cancer? Cancer is still a great mystery. It seems like since I was a boy we’ve been pouring money and resources into figuring out how to keep malignant cells from reproducing. And yes, I realize that we have – to some degree. We can cut cancerous cells out of our bodies and then pound our system with chemotherapy – and that sometimes keeps cancer from returning. We’ve also learned a ton about how to prevent certain types of cancers from occurring at all. Prevention is a wonderful thing. But when I was smoking a pack a day back in my early 20’s, I always figured that we’d have a solution by now. I also figured that the world would be a lot more like the Jetsons by now too. So there’s that. But despite our cumulative brain power as a species, and billions upon billions of dollars, we still can’t solve the great mystery of cancer.


Maybe because it’s not supposed to be solved. Maybe. You never know. And if you say you do know, then you’re saying you understand the mysteries of the universe – and I’m going to call you delusional.

Does this mean that we should stop trying to solve cancer? Hell no. America is the land of fighters. We’ve proven time and time again that despite our sea of differences, whenever there’s a common enemy, we rally. So when we’re talking about a common enemy to the entire species – well, Fuck Cancer. Of course we won’t quit trying to find a permanent cure. Nor should we.

But I do wonder whether cancer is so big and mysterious that we’re destined to keep flailing our fists in the dark. That we want it to be solved so badly, we refuse to believe that it can’t be.

To Adam Yauch and the other eight million humans who will die of cancer this year, you put up a good fight. We gave it our all. Now rest. In peace.

UPDATE: Two days after writing this post I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. Prognosis is great. God, what a kidder. 


Jim Mitchem

Don't Read Too Much Into This
Amendment One: A Vote Against Fear

Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.