What Is The Purpose of Cancer?

I didn’t cry but I sure did want to.

My wife’s eyes weren’t so prideful and I rested a hand of comfort on her shoulder as she took in what was happening.  We were in Austin for the LIVESTRONG Challenge, an annual running and cycling event that raises awareness and funds for the fight against cancer.  The organization’s CEO, Doug Ulman, Lance Armstrong and several supporters hosted a dinner the night before the bike race and the grand finale was a moving video of LIVESTRONG‘s mission:

We kick in the moment you’re diagnosed.
We help you accept the tears. Acknowledge the rage.
We believe in your right to live without pain.

And then somewhere in the middle of the video it goes on to say:

We’re about preventing cancer. Finding it early. Getting smart about clinical trials.
And if it comes to it, being in control of how your life ends.
It’s your life. You will have it your way.

At the table beside us sat a middle-aged gentleman covering his face.  I don’t know his name or what he looked like but I could hear that behind his hands streamed a symphony of sadness.  Perhaps he was mourning a heart no longer here, an uncertain tomorrow or a present pain with no end in sight.  Whatever the case, I sensed that he was in a place far too close to bad to see any good.  As we walked away that night to continue – what we believe to be – cancer-free lives, I began to wonder three things:

1) What is the purpose of cancer?

2) Why does a good God allow bad cancer?

3) Can good come from bad?

I’ve pondered these questions so much in recent days that I felt compelled to share what I believe to be responses to each. Notice I didn’t say I had answers. That would be far too assumptive and I’m not nearly intelligent or patient enough to have answers.

What Is The Purpose of Cancer?

It’s not news that cancer sucks.  It’s often inexplicably swift to strike and glacially slow to disappear.  Cancer is nature’s universal invitation to suffer, with no regard to status, gender, credit score, geography or religion.  Cancer is bad and health is good, right?

I’ve seen the bad in cancer.  I’ve also seen cancer galvanize people from all different walks of life into action, unity, focus, creativity and ultimately friendship.  That night at the LIVESTRONG dinner we celebrated the resolve and determination borne from cancer.  Malignant cells became the thread by which people were brought together in courage and genuine camaraderie.

This begs an obvious question. Would this group of people have connected without cancer?

If Lance Armstrong’s diagnosis came back clear on October 2, 1996, would he have ever reached out to others affected by cancer and set in motion the formation of one of the world’s premier cancer support organizations?  I don’t know.  I do know the word “cancer” has a way of eliminating distractions and sparking immediate re-prioritization of life’s truest treasures.  The dawning of death is the clearest reminder of how finite and fragile we are.

For the sake of cancer I’ve seen hard-working fathers leave the office to have dinner with their family. I’ve seen estranged family members hug for the first time in years.  I’ve seen funerals become family reunions and chemotherapy become community gatherings.

I believe this is what Steve Jobs alluded to in his now famous 2005 Stanford University commencement address:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

My intent is not to marginalize or understand cancer.  It’s hard to see the silver-lining when you’re in the middle of a storm and I’ve had my portion.  Cancer is undeserved and tragic.  More than 28 million people globally are fighting through it every day.  Some will win the physical battle and others will run out of time here on earth.  For every miraculous tale of recovery there are countless sagas of loss.

I also know that wounds become wins when we put them in God’s hands.  The victory over cancer has nothing to do with the final biopsy or autopsy and everything to do with the final condition of our hearts.  If the ROI of pain is power then cancer is an atomic bomb with the potential to change the face of humanity.  Human unity.

What do you think?

Can good come from bad? Is it fair to look for purpose in someone’s suffering? In our own?

Leave a comment and let me know what you think. I also want to discuss the other question later this week, Why Does A Good God Allow Bad Cancer?


–> Next post in this series: Why Does A Good God Allow Bad Cancer?

My wife Alisha and I at the LIVESTRONG Challenge

9 thoughts on “What Is The Purpose of Cancer?

  1. Does cancer have any more or less purpose than heart disease? Allergies? Asthma? A broken leg?

    As a cancer survivor, and a person with a heart valve replacement, and other medical problems, I don’t think so.

    And please, don’t tell me that “A Good God Allow(s) Bad Cancer?” Why wouldn’t God allow cancer when he or she or it doesn’t stop genocide, or war, or natural disasters? If you believe that a good God allows a bad disease, you believe that to develop cancer you did something bad, that you deserve it. And no one will tell me that anyone I know who has had cancer deserved it.

    God doesn’t “allow” it any more than praying to God or Jesus before going for a loan will get you that loan, or get you turned down. And I have seen and heard people do just that.

    You may be a spiritual person, but please don’t confuse having or not having a belief in (your) God with causes of disease and whether one can be cured.

    1. Thx for responding Alan. I agree, no one deserves cancer and faith is not always a cure, but a way of coping, connecting and comforting. I’d really like to discuss the question, why does a good God allow bad cancer. I don’t have the answers but the dialogue is valuable. However, I do believe and trust that pains of all kinds (including allergies, asthma and broken limbs) have a purpose beyond purely suffering.

      1. I think it is obvious that you and I have 2 very different approaches to faith and disease.

        Cancer is not good or bad. It is a disease. It develops from diet, from heredity, from environmental factors or a variety of factors that I know nothing about. It does not discriminate between people. It may have bad (non-medical) effects, or it may have good ones. That is not the result of the disease but how one deals with the disease.

        Faith is never a cure. It may help people with cancer, their families and friends, cope with the disease but it not a cure. I wouldn’t advise anyone to rely on faith rather than good medical care when faced with a medical problem

  2. AP,

    I apologize in advance for the novel, but this topic is one I’ve thought about a LOT recently. In the last couple days to be precise.

    First answer, first question: I believe good can come from bad.

    The second, “is it fair to look for purpose in someone’s suffering,” is a tough one. For a long time, I believed “bad things happen to good people; only the good die young.” I realized this after I attended two funerals in one year for two best friends’ parents, who were GOOD people who raised GOOD children. After they passed I told my parents ‘I love you” more often and called my mom almost daily while away at college. That belief, or reassurance, was challenged after a similar conversation with a friend who lost her father to cancer & mother who had 6 months left (or so the Dr. said – she kicked breast cancer’s butt!). I realized that reassurance, “only the good die young,” was selfish…my parents haven’t fought a fatal disease and lost. Although my Dad had cancer, he didn’t need chemo and he was a-okay after a few treatments & surgery; never weak nor hairless. Although faith or “why” aren’t one-size-fits-all, the dialogue with my friend made me think.

    Why does a good God allow bad cancer? Depends who you ask.

    Science, lifestyle, genetics…LIFE; yes, those factors cause and (may) cure cancer.

    But this is about faith. Faith during hard times comforts and helps us cope; in general that’s what spirituality is about (no matter what or who you believe in). God comforts when we suffer. God also cures when we suffer: I read an article re: faith & miracles in terminal patients; prayer (sometimes) has a placebo effect on the body which cures and proves doctors wrong. The body & mind are amazing.

    Why does a good God allow bad cancer?
    For me, a good God allows bad cancer to guide refocus in those who’ve been directly or indirectly touched by the bad cancer. For me, that’s what He has done. I questioned my own faith in recent months and after 23 years as a Christian I Googled Buddhism; I was completely lost.

    Because of bad cancer I refocused. I heard about a girl, only 21, fighting cancer for the third time. And I mean FIGHTING. With an army and everything. I visited a facebook support group created by her friends and spent an hour reading. The messages (from friends/family/strangers), updates from her step-father and pictures/videos of Lauren hit me hard. She proved the doctors wrong again and again and AGAIN. I was touched, my faith restored, and my mind refocused.

    I’ll end my narrative here but for further context to the above paragraph, follow the link to the FB group. It’s absolutely remarkable. https://www.facebook.com/groups/142776885790829/?ref=ts
    Lauren’s story, from ~April:

    Thanks for the post, AP.

  3. Remarkable! Its genuinely awesome piece of writing, I have got much
    clear idea on the topic of from this paragraph.

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