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God and Cancer

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“I love You, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.”
Psalm 18:1–2

A Test of Faith

As a Bible teacher and pastor, I have often talked about the importance of trusting God through thick and through thin. When times are great, we should praise God and thank Him for His goodness. When times are tough, we should praise God, thank Him for His goodness, and lean completely on Him. Now, it was my turn. Would I practice what I so often have preached? Is it easier said than done? These questions would soon be answered as my faith was put to a serious test.

I was wheeled into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) on Sunday night, July 16th so that I could begin chemotherapy immediately. When I arrived in my new room, I needed to get off the bed that I had been on for the past few days and get on the new bed in the ICU. It took a great deal of effort for me to stand up and then sit down on the new bed because I was so anemic. I was breathing very heavily after the transfer and decided to lay back and rest. The problem was that my new bed was shorter than the other one and I ended up smacking my head on the small headboard. Immediately, I closed my eyes and thought about how careless I had been. My platelets were so low that I thought I may have just caused some internal bleeding in my head. When I opened my eyes, the room was spinning—or so I thought. After a second or so, I looked at the foot of the bed and realized that the nurse was just wheeling the bed into its proper place in the room. This would be one of many humorous moments that helped me keep my sanity during the hospital stay.

I was hooked up to various devices so that the nurses outside my room could monitor my condition at all times. An electrocardiogram or EKG test was administered on Friday to check the condition of my heart. I believe this was done to make sure that I could handle the chemotherapy treatments that were about to start. I had an oxygen hose to help my body get enough oxygen since my anemic condition was severely limiting my ability to do that.

Later that night, a nurse walked in carrying a bag of bright orange fluid. This would be my first dose of chemotherapy. This particular chemo medicine was called Idarubacin. The amount of chemo that I would receive would be based on my size, and, since I am a rather large person (6’ 9”, 250 pounds), I was receiving a large dose (30 mg or 12 mg/m2 of body surface area).

Allow me to briefly explain the goal of chemotherapy treatment for those readers unfamiliar with this medicine. When a person develops cancer, the cancerous cells begin to multiply and take over a portion of the organ, region, or the entire body. With leukemia, the cancerous cells infect the body’s blood supply. Chemotherapy is basically a toxic substance that attacks both the cancerous cells and the healthy cells. The hope is that the chemo will wipe out all of the cancerous cells and leave enough healthy cells to start reproducing. It is administered directly through an IV site along with the normal fluids.

Having this basic understanding of chemotherapy made the entire process incredibly nerve-wracking. I remember watching the orange fluid slowly travel down the IV tube and thinking about the damage that this poison could do to my body. As it started to flow into my arm via my PICC port all I could do was hope and pray that it would do its job. To ease the tension a bit, my wife and I tried to imagine that it was Kool-aid or Tang being dripped into my line. There was nothing left for me to do except put it all in God’s hands.

Most of the side effects of chemotherapy are not manifested until about a week later, but a few develop quickly. The first side effect that I noticed was an obnoxious case of the hiccups. It seems that everyone has their own method of getting rid of hiccups. I usually hold my breath for about thirty seconds and this often takes care of them. Not this time. I was able to get them to stop a few times, but each time someone asked me a question or a nurse touched my arm, they would start up again. It was one of those things where it was frustrating but laughable because it really was not a huge deal.

The next side effect of the chemo that I noticed was that it makes it hard to sleep. Of course, I was nervous about the poison being in my body, so that made it hard to sleep. However, chemo actually has the tendency to reduce the amount of sleep a person will get. This became a problem for me because I had been averaging about 2–3 hours of sleep per night for almost a week. This was likely due to a combination of being sick and nervous and trying to get used to different beds. Once again, I slept very little that night and was continuing on my downward spiral.

“I Won’t Wake Up”

Monday marked my first full day in the ICU. The combination of Hydrea and chemotherapy was rapidly breaking down the white blood cells. I began to have a lot of trouble breathing during the day. They told me that much of the waste from this process was filling up in my lungs, so steps were taken to counter that problem.

I began to cough up some blood, and my breathing continued to worsen throughout the day. A respiratory therapist stopped in to check on me, and I was given a plastic device, called an incentive spirometry, to help me practice my breathing. It measured the amount of air that I was able to take in on a given breath. For someone my size, I should have been able to breathe in about 4.5 liters of air. In my critical condition, I was only able to get about .5 liters.

I knew that I was extremely sick and getting worse by the minute. I could not sleep due to my troubled breathing. During the afternoon, one of the nurses talked to me about the importance of getting some rest. I remember her saying the words “sleep deprivation.” This began to weigh heavily on my mind so around 6:00 PM I decided to try to go to sleep for the night.

The next seven hours were going to be a huge test of my faith. I desperately tried to sleep, but all I could do was toss and turn. I knew that I needed to get some sleep, but I also knew that I was in real trouble. At one point in the evening I was taken in for an x-ray of my chest so the doctors could take a look at just how bad things were. While I was getting the x-ray, Casey called my mom so that she could be there, too, just in case things really went south.

By 10:30 at night, I was back in my room with Casey on my left side and my mother on the right. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be in their shoes. Here I lay dying in front of their eyes, and all they could do was stay by me and pray.

Around 11:00 PM, I looked at my wife and said, “If I fall asleep, I won’t wake up.” I was not trying to scare her or make things worse for her than they already were. I just wanted her to know that I loved her and that this might be it.

My mind was racing. I believe wholeheartedly that a person can have full assurance of his or her salvation. Concerning the words of his first letter, the Apostle John stated, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:13). As a Christian, I knew where I was going to spend eternity. I was not afraid to die, but I was concerned about my family. How would my wife raise two young children? What would it be like for my children to grow up without their dad? I trusted that God would take care of them. After all, He loves them more than I do and has limitless resources at His disposal to care for them. Certainly, they were in good hands. Those good hands were also taking care of me in my most desperate moment.

Little did I know that God had prompted some others to be praying for me at that specific moment. Nearly 2,000 miles away, in California, two of His faithful servants whom I had never met were praying for me. Who were these women, and why were they praying for me? I had been taking an online course during the summer from a school in California, and when I was diagnosed I was put on the prayer list. Within the next couple of days, I received an email from each of these ladies that not only demonstrated God’s existence, but also His loving care for me. These two emails served as a source of encouragement to me because I knew there was no naturalistic explanation for this—God was involved in this situation. Take a look and decide for yourself.

Here is the first email:

I don’t know if you receive the emails but I assume you do. I want you to know that you are continually in my heart and prayers. Last night I couldn’t sleep between 11:45–12:30 East Coast Time [I was in the Central Time Zone] and all I could pray for was you. I know … that God had called me to pray specifically for you and your family during that time. I do not know if there was any urgency then, but God is faithful to wake me up and use me to pray when there is an urgent need. (from P.N.)

I was stunned when I read through this email. Not only was I humbled by the amount of prayers that were being said on my behalf, but this woman actually listed the time during which she was praying. This was during the same time that I told my wife that I was not going to wake up.

Here is the second email:

Thanks for your email. I know that God is granting all of you His special grace to get through this. When I checked the update on the website I saw that things were pretty rough specifically on Monday. Providentially all through the night I continued waking as I couldn’t sleep very well just thinking about your situation, so most of the night I was up praying for you all. I couldn’t help but wonder if Tim was in great need for prayer and that is why God kept me up all night. I see that he was having trouble breathing, sleeping, vomiting and just being troubled about leaving his family behind. (from M.S.)

This email was addressed to Casey. She had received an encouraging email a few days earlier from this woman. Casey responded to it and that is why M.S. thanked her for the email. She also mentioned the journal I had been keeping on the website. Throughout much of my hospital stay, I was able to type a daily report on my condition and what was going on with my treatment. On the days that I felt the worst, as was the case with this particular day, I usually waited a day or two before typing up the entry for that day. M.S. referenced my journal entry for Monday, but that entry was not posted to the website until late Tuesday night—after P.N. had sent her email! In other words, there was no possible way for her to know about the severity of my condition at that time, nor was there any way for M.S. to know about it. For some reason, these two women were praying for me during my darkest hour. I believe there is no other explanation for this than that God had laid it on their hearts to pray for me. I am so thankful they did.

In the past, I had heard numerous stories similar to this in which it seemed like God was the only logical explanation for what had happened. From a Christian perspective, some of these stories are believable because we trust that God can intervene in the world that He made. On the other hand, it seems like so many of the modern day miraculous claims are nothing but hoaxes perpetrated by someone seeking attention. Of course, whenever I heard one of these stories, I had no way of knowing whether it was true or false. Ultimately, it came down to whether or not the person telling the story was trustworthy and whether or not the story made sense. In my case, I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that God was involved, and that gave me great hope. He was not finished with me yet.

Flat Lining

I remained in ICU until Friday. Thankfully, I do not remember much about it. I have had to check with Casey about many of the details of this chapter. I am not sure why I remember so little from the four days and five nights spent in ICU. Perhaps some of my medications were responsible. Nevertheless, I do remember some things.

One rather humorous moment occurred when an electrode came off my chest and my heart monitor flat lined. The nurses monitoring my vitals from the nurses’ station could tell if something was wrong based on the activity or lack of activity on the heart monitor. They were aware that nothing serious had happened, so they took their time coming to my room. A few moments later, a nurse walked into my room to check on me. As she opened the door, I sat up quickly and exclaimed, “I’m flat lining.” She looked at me and calmly stated, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that.” Obviously, if I could say, “I’m flat lining,” then I was not really too concerned about it. This was yet another humorous moment that helped me get through.

Hope in the Midst of Doubt

A proper mindset can go a long way in helping a person get through tough times. Proverbs 18:14 states, “a man’s spirit sustains him in sickness.” In other words, it seems that a person’s mental well-being or mental attitude toward tough situations will help carry him through it.

Many studies have been performed concluding that a person’s outlook has an impact on the outcome of their situation. Those with a good or positive attitude have a better chance of making a successful recovery. I am not advocating the so-called “positive confession” or positive thinking movement in which people can speak away or think away their illness. Not at all! Nevertheless, many researchers firmly believe that a person with a positive outlook will fare better than the one with a negative outlook. Some may chalk this up to their religious beliefs; others to serotonin levels. Whatever the reason, there seems to be a correlation between one’s emotions and prognosis.

Of course, it is often very difficult to maintain a proper mindset, especially when everything seems to be going wrong. Perhaps the greatest enemy of this helpful outlook is doubt. When doubt seeps in it shatters one’s confidence and leads to frustration, worry, and despair. How does one overcome this doubt?

Many Christians will tell you that during this time, they try to think about God’s faithfulness and His promises to us. Oftentimes, as Christians, we like to think about passages like Romans 8:28, which reveals that God works all things together for good to those who love Him. While I certainly agree with this, I hasten to add that the “good” may not always be what we expect. How many would consider the persecution endured by Christians and the executions that ended their lives as being good? The Apostle Paul wrote Romans 8:28, and history tells us that he was beheaded for his faith. Was this for his good?

Before answering that question, I want to further clarify something that I mentioned earlier. Bear with me for a minute as I discuss something that may seem unrelated to this discussion but is actually very pertinent at this point. Many Christians have been influenced by a movement that promises its adherents that a believer should never be sick or poor. After all, they reason, since God wants us to be effective in doing His work, then He will always provide the health and resources necessary to be maximally efficient in doing that work.

This all sounds good from a human perspective. Who doesn’t want to be healthy and prosperous? These teachers often claim that if one has the right attitude or speaks the right (positive) words in faith, then he will receive his or her healing and blessings from God. Some who teach this philosophy undoubtedly have good intentions and I have several friends who agree with this thinking; however, the Bible does not teach these ideas.

Hebrews 11 is widely regarded as the “faith chapter.” Many have called it “The Faith Hall of Fame” because it highlights many of the Old Testament heroes and their incredible trust in God’s promises. After commenting on spiritual giants such as Noah, Abraham, and Moses, the author of Hebrews summarizes the lives of others who had great faith. As you read about their lives, remember that they are included in “The Faith Hall of Fame” and think about whether or not they were blessed with health and prosperity. The author of Hebrews wrote that:

Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:35b–38)

Please notice that some of these unnamed heroes of the faith were destitute, which means the exact opposite of prosperous.

Some were stoned while others were sawn in two. Without trying to sound sarcastic, surely these are not to be seen as blessings of health and prosperity. Some of you may be wondering why I just spent several paragraphs discussing this issue. I am not trying to grind a theological axe, but I felt it was necessary to clarify what the Bible actually teaches regarding a person’s health, because I believe it has been misrepresented and distorted by this movement. Nowhere does the Bible promise believers that they will be free from pain, suffering, struggles, and poverty—this side of heaven. It is important to point this out because many have been led to believe that they should never experience financial hardships or poor health because they have faith. If people believe this, what happens to their faith when difficulties strike? Do they begin to doubt God’s mercy and goodness? I hope not. It is more likely that they begin to doubt their own faith, and this is unfortunate. If they only had a proper perspective on these things in the first place, then they would understand that believers can experience both good and bad.

So let’s revisit the question as to whether or not it was in Paul’s best interest (“for the good”—Rom. 8:28) to be executed. We could rephrase this and simply ask, “How can pain, suffering, and struggles work for the good of those who love God?” The answer to this question will be developed throughout the remainder of the book. To begin with, we need to look at Paul’s perspective on the matter. After all, he is the one who stated that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.”

The Apostle Paul wrote thirteen books of the New Testament1 and could arguably be called the greatest Christian that has ever lived. His life was not one of health and prosperity, either. In 2 Corinthians he revealed some of the trials and tribulations he had faced as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. I want you to see the sufferings that this great man of faith endured for the sake of spreading the good news. He wrote that he was

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. (2 Corinthians 11:23b–27)

Once again, we can see that a faithful follower of Christ was not exempted from pain and suffering. In light of all this suffering, how was Paul able to maintain his faith in God? Did he begin to lose faith and start to doubt God? Not at all! I believe that if we can learn from his example, then we can learn to make it through the tough times that may lead us to doubt God’s goodness.

It is crucial to see that Paul learned to see things from a heavenly or eternal perspective. He saw “the big picture” or at least tried to see it. He knew that this world was not his home and he longed for the day that he would be able to leave this world and be with his Savior. In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Philippians 1:21–24)

Paul believed it was “better by far” for him “to depart and be with Christ” than it was for him to “remain in the flesh.” At the same time, he knew that God had called him to proclaim the good news. So as long as he was on Earth, he felt that he had a job to do, and, if that job called for suffering, then so be it.

Near the end of his life, Paul wrote a letter to his young protégé Timothy. Notice his outlook as he faced death:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day … (2 Timothy 4:6–8)

Paul knew that he was about to be put to death, and he was not afraid because he knew he had done the things that God had called him to do. Having this same type of conviction helped me maintain a positive outlook during my bleakest hours. I have not done as much as Paul did, and I am quite sure I never will. Nor have I lived a perfect life, but I do believe that I have been pretty faithful to God.

The Apostle Paul and the heroes discussed in “The Faith Hall of Fame” (Hebrews 11) were able to exercise tremendous faith in God in the midst of incredible suffering. Is it possible for someone to do the same today? Is it possible for someone to avoid being consumed by their doubt? I believe it is, but we need to exercise a particular character trait that is sorely lacking in people today.

Confidence is really the antidote to worry and doubt. I was fortunate to have a doctor that was extremely confident. It seems that confidence is contagious because his confidence allowed me to feel certain that things would get better.

As a Christian, I have confidence that the Bible is true, and so, whatever it affirms is accurate. When it states that all things work together for the good, I believe it because I serve a God that cannot lie. I also believe that He will not allow me to go through any situation that I cannot handle with His help (Philippians 4:13). Now I promised that I would not spend a lot of time trying to convince you of my position until the final section, so I’ll leave it at this for now. It is important for people to understand how far confidence can go in undercutting the doubt that is often so prevalent in tough situations.

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