Light travels at 671 million miles per hour. The sun is 93 million miles away from the earth. That means that if the sun exploded, we would not see it for 8 minutes and 19 seconds. A light year is the distance that light can travel in one earth year. This equates to 5,878,625 million miles, or roughly 6 quadrillion miles. The universe is estimated at about 93 billion light years across. How insignificant do you feel?
An electron is less than 1/1000 the diameter of a proton. A proton has a diameter of approximately 1/25,000,000,000,000 inch. Consider that there are about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 electrons in the average human body. How colossal do you feel?
Cancer is the unchecked growth of mutated cells in an organism. Once established and supplied with their own blood source, these neoplasms or tumors replicate out of control. It typically takes 1,000,000,000 cancer cells in a tumor for it to be detectable using physical examination or conventional radiology.
It is against that backdrop that we humans can feel like the center of the universe in one breath and like cosmic dust in the next. We can feel like masters of our own dominion on the inhale and poker chips in a biological warfare game on the exhale. We spend our lives pushing against both our physical and mental limitations, shaping the imaginary form of what we can control in an effort to appreciate our daily lives and mollify our aspirations of significance, if not eternal life through posterity.
We all begin life believing we are the most important creature on earth. Over time, we struggle to accept that we must share this public stage; that the applause we hear is only ours to share. Eventually, we realize that the mark we make on the world is ours to carve and that we may use no tools save those of our own intelligence. We claw with our fingernails at an indifferent earth, paying the price of birth, baring the scars of experience (the blood-stained reminders of our successes and the rescued wisdom gleaned from our defeats) before giving way to those behind us. Life is a disorderly queue and each surviving generation steps ever forward to take the place of those who have gone before us.
And yet, with all of the collective knowledge humanity has amassed, cancer , biology and the march of time relentlessly cuts us down with concern for neither our individual accomplishments nor mankind’s self-appointed importance. None of which prevents us from fighting it. We bargain, promise, diet, pray, in essence, delude ourselves into thinking that chemistry, physics and biology are somehow under the purview of our control. Nowhere is this more evident than when disease or chance affects those we love the most. A willing suspension of belief absorbs us; we somehow seek mystical ways of trading places with our afflicted loved ones, to take the proverbial bullet on their behalf, ignoring the axiomatic in favor of the absurd.
It is this hopeless sensation that I feel when embracing my wife, whose cancerous tumors lay two inches below the skin’s surface, bent on their suicidal quest to metastasize beyond her lungs. Were I able, in that enveloping hug, I would pull the cancer out of her lungs through her back and into my fingertips, freeing her of the daily pain and altered future demanded of her illness. Willingly, I would cut off my hand, burn the cancerous appendage and celebrate the event in song and dance if it would help my wife. All for the sake of two inches. How long would it take light to travel those two inches? How many electrons, were they capable of being paused and lined up, would it take to traverse those two inches? For the sake of those two inches, I am helpless. Two inches.