/ 17 May 2024

New responses to diseases – and each other

Zebra Showing Its Teeth, Rift Valley Province, Nakuru, Kenya
In black and white: Animal behaviour can mirror human nature. Photo: Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Getty Images
Dr Skye

It is a well appreciated concept in medicine that when our defences are overstimulated or poorly mediated, we begin to disturb our own physiological equilibrium and create disease. 

In 2021, tuberculosis killed 54 000 South Africans — that is one every 10 minutes. What’s interesting about this disease is that it’s not the pathogen itself that destroys normal cells, it’s the body’s response to the bug that actually distorts the normal integrity of lung and other organ tissue. 

Immune checkpoints activate when proteins on the surface of immune cells, called T cells, recognise and bind to partner proteins on other cells, such as some tumour cells, to deactivate or destroy them. When this defence fails, cancer cells proliferate and healthy cells are infiltrated, killed by the cancer cells.

Autoimmune disease is another very topical example. Here, the body produces antibodies to its own tissue. These antibodies recognise “self” as foreign and sabotage, kill and disrupt normal, healthy cells. 

All humans actually have some of these cells in their circulation, but there are checkpoints that inhibit them from wreaking havoc. 

We know this because, when we use immunotherapy in cancer and suppress certain checkpoints, autoimmune-type activity results. 

I have been thinking about less tangible defences — the ones that disconnect us from other people and from ourselves. 

We all have strategies for keeping ourselves emotionally safe. While a defence strategy might have once served you to protect you from emotions or experiences that were too painful to bear, as we age and mature, we often need to rethink, re-model and release our historical defences.

In the same way that communication between cells can become inappropriate, so can our behaviour with each other. Core truths reflect similarly in physiology and sociology. I love this about the natural world, all these parallel ripples, echoes and mirrors of one another urging us to higher planes in every dimension. 

It feels appropriate to give language to the brutal ways that territories are defending themselves in parts of the world today. 

I looked to animal behaviour to find ways that conflict and devastation might pave way for higher ground or more stable equilibrium, but even down to colonies of ants, who display ritualised fights for territories, enslaving other colonies and killing or driving away their queens, no species seems to be exempt from seemingly unethical behaviours. 

Who would have thought a blackbird would viciously peck another of its kind to death for triumph over a place? Who knew that polygynous mating animals, such as zebras and seals, allowed for one dominant male to mate with harems of females at the expense of the other males in the environment? 

It’s clear where our animal nature originates. As long as the world is an embodiment of tension and rivalling for higher ground, power and dominion, it makes sense that our bodies would mimic this.

Audre Lorde reminds us that there are no new ideas, there are only new ways of making them felt. This idea soothes me. The widening gyre can only be the widening gyre. 

Victor Hugo wrote that even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise. This dual dance might be the only way that we can exist — antagonism and tension are inherent in our aliveness.

It feels like a truism to say that we are all in pursuit of less suffering. We are all in pursuit of relational ease between our own cells, ourselves and between one another. 

We are living through a time with more access to tools for self-actualisation and healing than ever before. Why then does it feel as if suffering is more rife? 

Cancer is the second-most frequent cause of death in humans. One in 10  humans have an autoimmune disease and, while the data is scant, it feels as if this is increasing.  

While you are statistically less likely to die from war or a war crime today than ever before, technology makes international conflicts a daily companion to all of us.

Perhaps what is new to our age is to sit with the discomfort of what is. Martha Beck suggests we can ease our anxieties by inviting them to sit beside us. Perhaps we can look to our pain, our cancer, our dissonance with self and enquire, “What brings you here?” “What wisdom do you speak?” When we do the same with one another, we will find that each of us carries the song of the blackbird and the shadow. Can we change the world by changing the conversations that we are having with ourselves and our cells? Let’s invite our sickness to set us free.

Skye Scott is a GP based in Sandton. She has a special interest in patient education, integrative medicine and mental well-being.