Just what does entropy have to do with NET cancer anyway?

This concept seems a rather odd inspiration in which to write about neuroendocrine cancer, yet it has been on my mind for a while now.  It was first introduced to me in a short story by Thomas Pynchon in my American Literature Survey class and the story just stuck with me.  This story seems especially relevant to me now that I am unemployed and seeking to do something with my life post-cancer diagnosis.  What is this short story, you may ask?  It is one that very few may have heard of and even fewer, outside of a literature survey class, may have read.  The story is Pynchon’s Entropy.

To begin with, entropy is a physics terms and a concept attached to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  In its simplest terms, entropy refers to the idea that everything in the universe tends toward chaos.  We see that in everyday life.  If we were to throw a deck of cards on the floor, what we get is a random pile instead of a perfectly formed house of cards.

While the term itself implies disorder and chaos within an isolated system, the Greek root word implies a turning toward or a transformation.

 If we were to toss bricks out of the back of a truck, instead of a perfectly formed wall, we would have a nice, random pile of nothing.  While the term itself implies disorder and chaos within an isolated system, the Greek root word implies a turning toward or a transformation.  This is what I find the most interesting and the idea that is relevant when discussing NET cancer.

First, let us take a brief look at Pynchon’s story and its two main characters, Meatball Mulligan and Callisto.  When we meet Meatball, he is in the 40th hour of his lease-breaking party.  People, in various forms of drunkenness, litter the apartment and Meatball finds himself plagued with a hangover from the last few hours of intense drinking.  Callisto, on the other hand, is safely ensconced within a hermetically sealed environment of his own creation, one that took him 7 years to perfect, just one floor above Meatball’s chaotic environment.  Callisto is snuggled in bed, where he has been for the past 3 days, holding tightly to a sick bird he is trying to heal.  Both men are facing potential chaos, yet each chooses to approach this chaos from a whole different perspective.

I can seriously relate to Callisto.  After trying so hard to create just the right environment, one that seeks to meet my every need, I have forgotten how to maintain its perfect balance.  When just one thing within my environment falls out of harmony, it is my first inclination to retreat to the safest space and pray that it all passes by.  Maybe, by sheer luck, I can hide underneath the sheets and the whole mess will just magically disappear.  How quickly I forget that my home runs because I am an active participant within the community, not a passive onlooker whose actions have no effect whatsoever on how the household runs.  For Callisto, this disturbance came in the form of a sick bird; for me, it came in the form of NET cancer.  While each trigger is incredibly different, each one landed the victim in bed hoping that the simple process of heat transference would solve the whole problem. Callisto, after having spent so much time creating the perfect environment, felt that:

“…holding the bird like that for three days…was the only way he knew to restore its health” (Pynchon 2720).

How could someone who had invested so much of his time and energy into creating this self-sustaining environment forget that his expenditure of energy was the key to maintaining the harmony? It sounds crazy, but when the going gets tough, I think it is natural for one to forget how important they truly are to the whole.

As we get to know Callisto a bit better, Pynchon reveals that he:

“…found entropy or the measure of disorganization for a closed system an adequate metaphor to apply to certain phenomena in his own world” (2723).

He sees that the outside world is working its way into chaos socially, politically, and economically with the evidence for such thoughts coming in the form of the noise from the party below.  As he contemplates his artificially created environment, he sees that the failure of the outdoor temperature to rise above 37 degrees is a sure sign that the idea of an eventual heat death of the universe is inevitable.  Even the mnemonic device he chose to use to remember the Laws of Thermodynamics speaks volumes in regard to his cynicism:

“…you can’t win, things are going to get worse before they get better, who says they’re going to get better” (Pynchon 2722).

I agree that the concept of entropy is a fitting metaphor to use to help explain some situations in life.  With cancer especially, it is easy to see how the isolated system of our body so easily degenerates into the chaos caused by rogue cells.  It is even easier to see how these rogue cells begin to contribute to the increasing chaos in our lives as we face endless testing, doctors appointments, and decide between a myriad of horrid treatment options. It is easy to end up feeling like Callisto and see life as a battle we cannot win, that things are only going to get worse, and never get better.  Life spins out of control and the cancer patient is only along for the ride.

Going back to where we find Callisto in the opening paragraphs of the story, I find a camaraderie with him.  Being still is the only way I know to restore health.  Taking time off of work (which eventually led to taking time off of life in general), I find myself sitting alone in my room, nursing my wounds and praying that it works.  For Callisto, he ended up coming to a terrible realization when his beloved bird dies:

“‘I held him,’ he protested impotently with the wonder of it, ‘to give him the warmth of my body.  Almost as if I were communicating life to him, or a sense of life.  What has happened'” (Pynchon 2728)?

A man who spends 7 long years perfecting his environment should know that his success does not lie in simple heat transference, but with him interacting and expending energy within the system.  This whole world is dependent on how he acts within it, keeping the balance and the order.  When he ceases to function in that capacity, his world begins to suffer.  This is the lesson that each cancer patient needs to internalize; we can accomplish nothing of value if we cease to act within our world.

Meatball Mulligan stands in stark contrast to the do-nothing Callisto.  If one were to apply the concept of entropy to this situation, one would think that Meatball’s isolated system was in existence longer than Callisto’s because of the total amount of chaos present; however, instead of taking place slowly over 7 years, this environment was created within a mere 40 hours.  When we meet Meatball, his party has fallen into a lull and he is just waking up from an alcohol-induced stupor.  There are several people passed out around his apartment who are just beginning to get their bearings.  One woman is still passed out in his bathroom sink.  While Callisto is laying upstairs in bed hoping that simple heat transference will solve his problems, Meatball:

“…crawled to the refrigerator and got out three lemons and some cubes, found the tequila and set about restoring order to his nervous system” (Pynchon 2721).

While this may be a poor example, Meatball realizes that he can continue to lay where he finds himself and hope that his headache will disappear; however, he knows better and sets off to do something to help himself feel better and begin to function.  Once he is functioning, he rescues the woman from the sink and helps her get to the shower, he lets someone in who was stuck out on the balcony, and talks to a friend who is suffering after his wife walks out on him.  He is actively interacting with his surroundings and everyone he comes into contact with is positively affected by his presence.

Once everyone has their bearings, the party begins to start swinging again and it really begins to pick up when a group of drunk sailors stumble in on the party mistaking it for a brothel.  The sailors’ behavior threatens to start a fight with several other guests and the woman who Meatball had helped into the shower is screaming that she is drowning. This creates an interesting situation where:

“Meatball stood and watched, scratching his stomach lazily. The way he figured, there were only about two ways he could cope: (a) lock himself in the closet and maybe eventually they would all go away, or (b) try to calm everybody down, one by one” (Pynchon 2727-2728).

Meatball chooses option (b) and proceeds to settle everyone down and restore some semblance of order to the situation.  Everything he attempts to do works to his satisfaction and order is indeed restored.  He realizes that he could hide in the closet but he would eventually be found, and, to save potential embarrassment, handles each situation before they soar out of control.  By choosing to expend energy, he has a positive effect on his environment.

This is where we need to be as cancer patients.  We can sit back and do nothing, but eventually it will find us out with potentially harmful side effects.  We have family and friends who count on us and, in my opinion, we owe it to not only them, but to ourselves, to take an active role in our treatment and not sit idle as life passes us by.  So much is at stake and I do not want to end up like Callisto’s bird when there is so much more I can do to guarantee a good quality of life.  As I see it, there are 7 simple steps we as NET cancer patients can take to ensure that we are healthy and happy.  These are:

  • Eat small, frequent meals to prevent abdominal pain and distress
  • Stay away from high FODMAP foods, fatty foods, spicy food, and food that is high in amines
  • Eat fresh, whole foods and avoid processed, highly salted foods
  • Get some exercise every day, even if it is only for a short while, for something is better than nothing
  • Refrain from alcohol use
  • Be tested for vitamin deficiencies and take vitamin supplements to treat these deficiencies and also take probiotics to aid in digestion
  • Make sure to seek emotional support to prevent depression and isolation

Finally, Pynchon writes something that I think is incredibly profound when considering how to proceed with cancer.  Callisto chooses to face the ever increasing chaos in his environment alone.  He calls the shots and when things around seem to spiral out of control, he fails to take any action.  We cannot do this cancer thing alone.  We need those around us to help keep us going forward. Pynchon writes that life (specifically married life) is:

“…founded on compromise.  You never run at top efficiency, usually all you have is a minimum basis for a workable thing.  I believe the phrase is togetherness” (2724).

Togetherness.  The key ingredient to successfully navigating life with cancer.  We can do all we can or we can sit back and watch life slowly run us over, but the one thing that will always keep us going is being together with others.  We need to be actively engaged in our environment and in community with others.  Those others can be our family, friends, or members of a support group, church, or other community group.  We need people actively feeding into our lives and we need to be actively feeding into others.  We cannot successfully navigate this thing called life alone. Think of Meatball and all those he positively affected despite the chaos.  Even though we have so much chaos going on internally, we should never cease to be a force to be reckoned with externally.  We can be a Callisto or a Meatball, the choice is ever before us, what will the answer be?

Works Cited

Pynchon, Thomas. “Entropy.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Shorter Seventh Edition. Nina Baym Ed. New York: Norton. 2719-2728. 2008. Print.

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