Most of us will know someone in our family or circle of friends who has needed treatment for cancer. It’s a condition that often arouses fear and anxiety because it can develop quite quickly and sometimes be life-threatening. Has the Christian faith anything to say about it?
Thinking of the beauty and intricacy of the human body, a Biblical poet was long ago moved to praise God. ‘For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’ (Psalm 139:13-14) Medical science tells us that, at birth, a baby has something like 26 billion cells in his or her body, and all those cells have developed within the mother’s womb from a single fertilised ovum or egg. By the time that baby becomes an adult, he or she will have many, many more. It’s the process of cell division that enables this remarkable feat of multiplication and diversification, producing a wide variety of organs and tissues, enabling the body to grow, as well as to renew and repair itself.
However, with cancer, the controls directing cell division go awry, allowing cells in one area of the body to divide in a disordered way, invading the tissues around and disrupting their normal working. This malignant new growth is known as a tumour. Some of its cells may detach and travel to other parts of the body, establishing cancer in new sites. Thus a primary cancer in one part of the body might produce a secondary cancer somewhere else, a process known as metastasis.
‘For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’
The NHS website (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/... ) reports that there are over two hundred types of cancer, each requiring particular diagnosis and treatment. In the UK the four most common types are found in the breast, lung, prostate and bowel, and currently 1 in 2 of us can expect to develop a cancer in our lifetimes. We are fortunate that real progress in the treatment of cancers has undoubtedly been made over the years, improving, extending and saving many lives. Technically there is as yet no absolute cure for cancer, but a patient is said to be in remission if the signs and symptoms are reduced or removed from their body. If they continue in complete remission for five years or more, they can consider themselves cured and look forward to a full life.
However, a diagnosis of cancer is still widely feared, not least because so often the anticipated outcome has been death, sometimes within weeks of diagnosis, or after months of painful, physical degeneration. Even with the blessing of continuing advances in medical knowledge and skill, the treatments available – mainly surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy – can themselves make big demands on the strength and courage of the patient. For this reason, a few choose not to accept treatments that might considerably reduce their quality of life, preferring instead to allow the condition to run its course while receiving help to control pain and other symptoms.
For the family and close friends of a cancer patient, having to watch someone they love struggling with their weakness can be an extremely distressing experience. Trying to be positive and supportive in the face of another’s suffering, all the while wrestling with one’s own fears of possible bereavement, is hugely demanding, both emotionally and psychologically.
Faced with this challenge, has the Christian faith anything to say to help us? Perhaps not surprisingly, we don’t find the word ‘cancer’ in the Bible, but it can be reasonably assumed that this has always been a factor in the experience of God’s people because archaeologists have found evidence of bone tumours in fossilised remains and ancient Egyptian mummies. What is presumed to be the oldest written description of cancer also comes from Egypt. Dating from about 3000 BCE, the so-called Edwin Smith Papyrus draws from an ancient surgical textbook and describes tumours or ulcers of the breast being removed by cauterisation.
We can’t be sure, but when II Kings 20:1 reports that King Hezekiah became sick and close to death, the ‘boil’ that the prophet Isaiah has treated with something like a fig poultice may have been some form of cancer. A major part of Jesus’ earthly ministry as described in the Gospels involved healing people as a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God amongst them, pointing to his own role as their Messiah. ‘Jesus went through Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.’ (Matthew 4:23)
'Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.'
But why should it be that the wonderful process of cell division that produces a beautiful baby can also produce a cancer, with all the consequences for our health and wellbeing that we’ve noted? Many Christians see this as evidence that ours is a broken world, marred by human sin. Because of the disobedience of the first man and his wife, God pronounced a curse upon the ground: ‘cursed is the ground because of you.’ (Genesis 3:17) On this account, the creation no longer works as God originally intended, so, while there is still much beauty, blessing and fruitfulness to enjoy in this life, there is also toil, pain, disease and death. This is just the way it is in a ‘fallen’ world; but thankfully that is not God’s final word on the matter.
The Apostle Paul touches on this problem in his Letter to the Romans. He writes of a creation ‘subjected to futility’ (Romans 8:20), but also affirms that one day the created order ‘will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God‘ (Romans 8:21). In other words, the whole creation is to be included in the redemption won for us by Christ when he died on the cross. In Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, John the Elder shares his vision of the completion of all God’s purpose in the appearing of a new heaven and a new earth, and of a new Jerusalem, a holy city in which God will dwell with his people. ‘...God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ (Revelation 21:3-4)
Until that vision has its fulfilment, we must live with the reality of suffering and death. Certainly, disease isn’t to be seen as a punishment sent by God; to develop a cancer isn’t a sign of God’s displeasure. The Old Testament Book of Job explores the problem of unexplained suffering and implicitly rejects the easy assumption that to suffer is a sure sign of someone’s guilt, while also recognising that we will never fully understand the ways of God. On one occasion when his disciples jumped to the conclusion that a certain man born blind was so either because of his own sin or the sin of his parents, Jesus told them, ‘Neither; ...he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’ (John 9:3) In this man’s case, Jesus goes on to restore his sight and lead him to faith, to spiritual light. (John 9:38) We can’t expect that our experiences of cancer will always have such favourable outcomes, but we can know that God is with us in our time of darkness. Not only does the poet of Psalm 139 affirm that God has made us ‘wonderfully’ (v14), but also that wherever and however we are, ‘your right hand shall hold me fast.’ (v10)