Symptomatology: I. All Roads
Nothing makes us feel sicker than Googling our symptoms when we feel sick. The results, we learn, are always the same: Scratchy throat? Cancer. Blurry vision? Cancer. Frequent urination? Cancer. The network of diseases that share this name encompasses so many ailments that almost anything can indicate it. In medical discourse, symptomatology encompasses the sum of all an illness’ characteristics. To speak of the symptomatology of cancer as such may be to speak of the mere fact of bodily failure.
To no small extent, the fear that cancer generates may be a consequence of its semiotic openness. When anything can point to cancer, cancer can be anywhere. Every twitch and every twinge signifies the possibility that our bodies are no longer our own, that they have been made otherwise by something moving within them. In its abstraction, cancer becomes the monomyth of all symptoms, the story before and behind every story.
The word “symptom” itself derives from a Greek root that means occurrence or happening. Etymologically, this suggests that our relation to our symptoms is passive, that they befall us. We are discovered by our symptoms, not the other way around. Our symptoms surprise us as we walk out the door, trip us as we walk along familiar paths. The symptom is kin to the anomaly, disrupting the way we ordinarily do things and thereby challenging our ability to do anything at all.
In practice, though, symptoms only become symptoms when we turn them into events, when we imbue them with the potential to mean. I feel a slight pressure in my throat. Would I have noticed it a month ago? Would it have meant as much before last Tuesday? If all symptoms name cancer, it may be because, for us, cancer names the very possibility of a symptom. Cancer is the absolute horizon of biomedical meaning. Forget Google! When we set out to interpret the signals sent by our bodies, it may always already be cancer that tells us they signify something more.