On Having Cancer

This week a doctor told me I have prostate cancer. I will be having some scans to see whether there is cancer anywhere else. The doctor says it is most likely that the cancer is localized in the prostate, so it should be treatable, and the prognosis should be good. But with God all things are possible.

I was on campus in meetings when I got the news. I wasn’t sure how to process it. The news made some of the meetings seem trivial. Suddenly, I was miles away as I looked around the room and watched people talk. Later, thoughts of slowing dying of cancer, made the meetings precious gifts.

I had a strong impulse to say whatever I thought—something always dangerous in faculty training sessions. I was ready to slaughter sacred cows and serve them up with a sarcasm sauce. I held my tongue but was amused that I thought cancer gave me a license to speak my mind. I haven’t decided if having cancer is making me more reckless or more courageous.

I also felt that cancer should license my grumpiness. Finally, I have what most would consider a good reason to be crotchety. If anyone challenged me, I would pull out my cancer card and tell them to back off. This too is silly.

Telling myself that many men face and survive prostate cancer was of no help. My father died of it when he was only a few years older than I am. Nor was it helpful when I reminded myself how many people face and endure much worse sickness and suffering. That so many have it much worse is no comfort and never has been. It is, however, a useful truth if you want to club self-pity to death.

Some of my response is frustrated exhaustion. After all Teckla has gone through with breast cancer, and all of Peter’s struggles with diabetes, and all our financial difficulties, having cancer knocks the wind out of me. Perhaps God and I have quite different ideas about what I can handle. I would like to lodge a formal complaint about my loss and trouble exceeding the agreed upon limits, but there is the cross. Not only does the cross of Christ silence me, it crumbles my pride and humbles me into tears of gratitude.

I immediately discovered that I have an aversion to some of the language we use with cancer. We urge people to fight cancer as though it is something we can punch or duel. We say of those who die of cancer that they fought to the end. My main battle, whether short or long, will be with myself. A fight to glorify God in life or death, in health or suffering. A fight to make certain my suffering only gives me a license to serve more selflessly and love more deeply.

I also have an aversion to letting cancer alter my social or personal identity. Some people become very invested in support groups, fund-raisers, walks for life, and wearing some color to raise awareness or money. I have nothing but admiration for anti-cancer activists and fundraising. I don’t think, however, NFL and NBA players wear any color for people with prostate cancer like they do with breast cancer. One can get blue ribbon “awareness pins” for prostate cancer, perhaps representing the color of useless testicles.

It would be great if Teckla or I could testify to how God has used our cancer to deepen our walk with him and draw us into a more intimate relationship with him. I can’t tell that this has or is happening. I am not sure I agree with C. S. Lewis who famously said God whispers in our pleasures but “shouts in our pain.” Job never testified to hearing God in his pain. I think more often pain, loss, and fear create so much static and personal longing that is hard to hear God. We feel further rather than nearer.

I certainly believe that endurance, even in darkness and silence, is rewarded; I just don’t think the rewards are the ones that sell books and fill pews. Nor do I buy the claim that God had to allow the cancer because there was no other way He could accomplish His purposes in my life. I will always celebrate God’s love and creativity in using any evil thing to achieve His good and holy will in my life. But to say God needed to use cancer puts limits on the wisdom and resourcefulness of God. To claim that our suffering is necessary to our growth would forecast an eternity without growth. And since so much suffering is the result of sin, welding suffering to growth makes God dependent on sin.

Having tasks to do and people to love has helped most. I am grateful that Ari, my grandson, is living with us. He is a constant reminder to hear the whisper of God’s voice in small graces and pleasures like a water fight on a sizzling day. I am grateful for a new school year and the useful distraction it offers. It is a privilege to say something true to a new batch of students.

I am also grateful for Christian friends and family that have prayed for us and often helped in tangible ways. Yes, I am aware of how entangled and divided politics has left the church in America. Few have better skills and more practice critiquing the church than I. But for us, the church has been the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus.

I have been sustained by Scripture. Each day for several years now, I have written a key verse on three 3×5 cards. At first, I wrote the verse for Teckla and me. But then Ari asked several times for his card. The simple act of printing the verses three times plants the truth of the verse in my heart. I carry the verse throughout the day, sometimes losing it before the day is over.  I find the cards all over the house, in my office on campus, in books I have marked, and under the seat of the car. Some go through the wash and reappear as a pellet in my jean pocket. Many are bundled with rubber bands and stacked on the shelf—little towers of strength against the enemy

God’s Word has filled my heart with faith that God is a shield, fortress, rock, tower, bulwark, haven, deliverer whose lovingkindness and faithfulness are everlasting. I am uncertain what that means for my affliction—but I am certain God has hold of me and will keep me. He will shelter me in the shadow of His wings until destruction passes by.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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