Caterpillars and Cancer
Last updated: August 2022
Processionary caterpillars are not well-known in the United States but are very well-known to be a significant environmental and defoliation hazard in the forests of southern Europe. A word of caution here. Should you ever encounter one of these on a trip overseas be forewarned these furry creatures are well equipped to defend themselves.
Following the leader
What makes these insects so visually engaging to adults, and more so to children and pets? It is their propensity to travel in lockstep in a single file. The sight of hundreds of insects moving in a long undulating living chain across the ground while linked head to tail draws a lot of attention and curiosity.
Once the annual migration process begins in early spring, the practice of linking up head to tail continues throughout the long trek to find food. Chains of 300 or more caterpillars will also link up with other chains, all blindly following a blind leader.
Sometimes its's useful, other times not
Just as a stopped clock can accurately display the correct time 2 times a day, most of the of caterpillar chains eventually find food, but not all. Some chains during their search inadvertently latch on to tail end of their own chain and form an endless circle.
Once linked not a single insect will leave that circle even when a rich source of food is placed just inches away. The inability to break away from the moving chain was first documented by French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre in 1916 who conducted a study on the pine processionary caterpillar. He observed a group who, after crawling up the side of a flowerpot, followed head-to-tail in a circle around the rim for a full week before succumbing to dehydration and exhaustion. Even when he placed food just inches away in the center of the pot every insect continued its march, ignoring a food source.
Lesson #1: Forward motion doesn't mean progress
There are life lessons that can be learned from these caterpillars. First, forward motion and activity does not mean you are achieving any meaningful progress even if we have a goal in mind. Who among us cannot recall one or more of those days when you were busy all day but somehow not much was accomplished? How about those endless hours spent in treatment and wondering what will happen next. Perhaps like our caterpillar friends we too can become too narrowly focused on our routines and never see the many opportunities that come into our lives every day.
Lesson#2: Break the chain and don't compare
The second lesson proved to a critical truth for me. As a blood-cancer survivor, it was time for me to stop my processionary tendencies to follow and compare myself to others. Yes … there are people doing things I can no longer do. And yes they may be in better or worse health than I am at this time. That said, it was time to stop following everyone’s advice on how I should live with this blood cancer. More importantly I needed take stop asking, “Why did this happen to me.” To live with this cancer I had to be willing to break the chain and stop comparing my life to others.
I needed to break out of the mold of being a blood-cancer patient. It is so easy to feel sorry for yourself and compare your health to those who have not been impacted by this disease. But what good does following that path do for you physically, emotionally and mentally?
I can make a change
With my blood-cancer diagnosis and treatment came a dawning. Unlike the processionary caterpillar, I could make a change. I could do things on my own in my own way. It was time to realize there is still much to live for and much to do. So rather than comparing myself to others I needed to rediscover my own gifts and uniqueness. If am moving along in lockstep and judging what I've done against the accomplishments or failure of others, then I am just like those poor caterpillars locked in the endless circle and getting nowhere fast.
Do you prioritize your mental well-being?
How do you feel about your support system?