CyberKnife and the Wonders of Modern Medicine

A number of my posts to date have been an attempt to put a pin in the party balloon of techno-Utopianism, which might lead some readers to think I’m some kind of Luddite squatting in a corner making the sign of the cross to ward off iPhones and refusing to get my children proper medical care because antibiotics are Satan’s gumdrops or something.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I love technology, which might explain why I’ve made a career of covering it. Heck, the majority of my work focuses on the most trivial and useless application of technology of all: video and computer games. When my son had a twinge in his side, we had him to the hospital in a trice, and the next day he was operated on for acute appendicitis in a procedure which left three tiny cuts rather than splitting him open like a freshly-caught cod.

So: technology, yay!

However, I retain a healthy skepticism about it. I don’t think it’s the panacea for all of mankind’s problems, even while it can do a great job at helping minimize suffering. My point is this: while pain and disease are bad (and I know this from close, personal experience) they can also be redemptive (something else I know from close, personal experience). I’ve seen horrible, pointless, premature deaths and miserable suffering. If I could have done something to prevent them, I would have. I have also seen those very horrors, however, transformed into moments of grace. We should do what we can to address physical suffering, but we needn’t always fear that suffering.

I’m absolutely delighted by modern medical techniques that can treat diseases, replace failing organs, and provide sophisticated prosthetics for people who’ve lost limbs. It’s when we move beyond the mere healing of the body and start attempting to redefine what it means to be human, or unleashing new technology with amazing destructive potential, that we need to start exercising extreme caution.

So we can print out replacement bones on a 3D printer. That’s great!

However, we may well soon be able to print out active viruses on a 3D printer. That’s bad!

You can’t look at something like CyberKnife and come away unimpressed at modern medicine’s capacity for good. CyberKnife is a brand of stereotactic radiosurgery, which uses intense, focused radiation to shrink cancerous masses with minimal damage to surrounding tissue. It looks like something designed by Aperture Labs:

"Hello down there! I'm CyberKnife, and please don't mind my terrifying name or frankly frightening design: I'm just here to help! There's science to be done!"

I’m in the middle of shuttling my extremely active, oddly-otherwise-healthy 89-year-old father back and forth to appointments so CyberKnife can shrink the malignant mass in his lung. His age precluded surgery, chemo, or traditional radiation, but this wonderful machine offers some hope.

Beyond its pinpoint accuracy, which allows it to “paint” the targeted mass with radiation, CyberKnife is different because it uses “image guidance software to track and continually adjust treatment for any patient or tumor movement.” This means that patients don’t have to be bolted into a frame or kept perfectly still or in awkward positions. Unlike some other stereotactic radiosurgery systems, CyberKnife can treat more than just brain tumors: it can reach  “the prostate, lung, brain, spine, liver, pancreas, and kidney. ”

Also: CyberKnife is a way cool name. Sounds like an accessory I would have attached to my Maskatron action figure.

Five or six short treatments with minimal side effects may just buy my father some extra time to be with his family, work at the soup kitchen, usher at Mass (he says he has to help the “old people” to their seats), and generally live a bit. That’s a good thing, because who wouldn’t want to spend a couple more years with this guy?

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Brian Green

    Good post. Catholicism is, I think, is both techno-friendly and techno-skeptic, and definitely not techno-utopian.

    I teach a class for engineers where we have to evaluate a problem for which the solutions can be either technical or moral. The technical solutions are easier. Behaving morally is hard! That is a serious contemporary problem, I think. We are constantly trying to solve moral problems with technology because it is “easier.” But the harder way actually gives much better results. And so we slouch into a trap of high technology and low morals – high power and little knowledge of how to use it – not a good place to be.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Thanks, Brian. Those are excellent observations. It would be interesting to see how how engineers wrestled with these kind of issues. You’re exactly right. about the trap of high technology and low morals. Well put.

  • Brian Green

    The observation on the dangers of high tech and low morals is one I picked up from the philosopher Hans Jonas, in his book _The Imperative of Responsibility_. If you like philosophy of tech, it is a must read, though not an easy one! I also have a version of it in audio lectures (he has a great accent), which is much easier to assimilate. I could send them to you if you like, just email me.

  • MattK

    [OFF TOPIC] Seriously, this is my new favorite blog! It has everything I usually look for, all in one convenient place- well thought out reflections, incredible insights on anything/everything, Mackerel Snapping, Neil Postman, video game reviews… LOVE IT! I’m telling everyone about this sight. Pax et Bonum.

    {TLMcD: Wow! Thanks! Catholic geeks are the best geeks. We know our Sindarin, lay some smack down on Skyrim, and can wrap it up with a set of Joyful Mysteries.}

  • Jon Zimmer

    MLK Jr. called it:

    Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. Like the rich man of old, we have foolishly minimized the internal of our lives and maximized the external. We have absorbed life in livelihood. We will not find peace in our generation until we learn anew that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things which he possesseth,” but in those inner treasures of the spirit which “no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.” Our hope for creative living lies in our ability to reestablish the spiritual ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in spite of our own instruments. Our generation cannot escape the question of our Lord: What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world of externals–airplanes, electric lights, automobiles, and color television–and lose the external–his own soul?</blockquote

    {TLMcD: Never saw that one. Great find!}

  • robin

    God bless your dad in his treatments.

    {TLMcD: Thank you!}

  • Gary Chapin

    Also, this idea — why are we advancing technologically, but crumbling as a society — is the germ that led to Korzybski’s formulating General Semantics. He had been a corporal in World War One … he was also part of the Polish aristocracy, a Count, so the next time you’re wondering, “What have the landed gentry done for us lately?” You can think of him.

  • Dennis Mahon

    Having undergone surgery, two six-month rounds of chemo, and a microwave ablation of a secondary cancer, I can empathize; I hope and pray for your father’s health.

    However, we may well soon be able to print out active viruses on a 3D printer. That’s bad!

    I never considered that! That is bad!!

    {TLMcD: May God be with you and your family through all your trials.}

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