A few days ago I shared a blog post, What Is The Purpose of Cancer?, inspired by my participation in the LIVESTRONG Challenge bike race. The courage, compassion and unity I witnessed there led me to a second self-inflicted inquiry: why does a good God allow bad cancer? This, quite frankly, sent me down a mental rabbit trail pondering if my simplistic definitions of good and bad were long overdue for a system reboot.
Is it possible that genuinely good outcomes can be birthed from ostensibly bad circumstances?
The notion of cancer can also be applied to connote “something evil that spreads destructively“. Seems like a fitting description for other aspects of life beyond the purely physiological. Cancer comes in all shapes, sizes and situations. Its physical form is visible via MRI. Economic cancer is revealed in finance reports. Relational cancer is often detected far too late in divorce proceedings while societal cancer circles the globe in wars, uprisings, unrest and revolution. Within this larger definition – cancer as anything that spreads destructively and causes disease, decay and death – I’d like to reframe how I personally view cancer.
The 4 D’s of Cancer
No matter what your spiritual conviction, most us can agree that disease, death, destruction and decay are bad. When I look at each of these through my weak, short-sighted eyes, I too see situations that are too bad to be good. Yet, when I put on corrective lenses I begin to understand that what I see isn’t always what I get. In fact, what we see is often less about us and more about a bigger plan that isn’t for our understanding in the first place. I believe good can come from bad in my life and the effects of cancer (the 4 D’s) can be reversed.
The death of a close friend, relative or even a co-worker is hard to digest. This mental and emotional journey can take years to process, or even a lifetime. How can we look beyond the lifeless and celebrate a life complete?
Coach Tony Dungy and son, James (right)
A story that still touches me is that of James Dungy, the son of former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 18. In an address at a 2006 Super Bowl event, Dungy shared how his son’s story has inspired struggling youth and his donated corneas have gifted sight to 2 people.
“I’m not totally recovered, I don’t know if I ever will be, it’s still ever-painful. But some good things have come out of it,” he said in room full of players, coaches and media.
“If God had talked to me before James’ death and said his death would have helped all these people, it would have saved them and healed their sins, but I would have to take your son, I would have said no, I can’t do that.”
Dark mourning clouds become morning sunshine when we realize we each have a specific, unique purpose during our brief time here.
The aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 left a city in ruin and an entire country’s peace of mind entangled in the rubble. I visited Ground Zero in New York City 6 months after the attack and found the impact indescribable. Bad cancer had transformed tall buildings into deep craters. The fence of a neighboring church became a makeshift memorial. The bustle of business was hushed to reverent, pensive silence.
I remember thinking, this place will never be the same. And it wasn’t.
9/11 Church Memorial (image by Shannon Hurst Lane)
Lower Manhattan has become a monument to courage in the face of life-changing adversity. Acts of violence acted as catalysts for unity across all 50 states and beyond. As we mourn the heroes and the victims we also remember the victory over terrorism. Cancer inflected injury but failed to infect our liberty.
“The attacks of September 11th were intended to break our spirit. Instead we have emerged stronger and more unified. We feel renewed devotion to the principles of political, economic and religious freedom, the rule of law and respect for human life. We are more determined than ever to live our lives in freedom.” —Rudolph W. Giuliani.
One in 4 deaths in the United States is due to cancer. In 2011 alone, an estimated 1.6 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed. The stats paint a not-so-pretty picture of a seemingly insurmountable foe.
I received a very poignant response to my original post, What Is The Purpose of Cancer?, from a former co-worker who shared how cancer shaped her life, and ultimately the lens through which she viewed bad things. Sarah knows the bad side of cancer all too well and her struggles are not uncommon.
“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,” she said.
Sarah was also kind enough to share the story of Lauren Skillman, a 20-year-old Fort Worth woman who is battling cancer for the third time in 2 years. Lauren’s Facebook page has become a social pep rally in support of her testimony and ongoing treatments.
In a May 2011 interview with NBC, Lauren’s doctor Kenneth Heym shared his thoughts:
“I’ve always wondered whether the most amazing people get these challenging diseases or if something happens to them once they get it, that they become the most amazing people. But with Lauren, since I’ve known her from the beginning, just facing everything with bravery, and courage and laughter.”
Lauren Skillman, 20, has a message for cancer.
If bad cancer is a reminder of our finite & fragile lives, could it also present an opportunity to trust in power outside our own? Perhaps the opportunity to be weak, dependent and confused creates the capacity to be stronger than we would ever be individually.
Life and loss go hand in hand. From small things (like my hair) to substantial items, most of what we have today will be gone at some point. My father always said, “Don’t hold on to stuff too tight. Sooner or later it’s gone or we’re gone.”
Cancer causes decay, the act of declining or decreasing, and often challenges our assumptions and shifts our focus. The very public moral decay of pro quarterback Michael Vick in 2007 was met with much scrutiny, media coverage and condemnation. Vick, pleaded guilty to illegal dog fighting and faced severe federal charges, ultimately serving 21 months in prison, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and losing “it all.”
His physical talents afforded him a life of means yet a cancerous environment and destructive decision-making wiped it all away. Or did it?
Since then, Vick has served his time, been reinstated into the NFL and is progressing positively at a pace few would have guessed. What struck me about Vick’s story was not his rise or fall, but the lessons he learned during this journey. In the process of losing fame and fortune, Vick found salvation. I’ll never forget watching his public apology on TV and grinning ear-to-ear while witnessing good from bad. Check the video out for yourself:
I’ve been asking myself why a good God allows bad cancer. What I’ve learned is that lessons preserved by pain are never lost. Yes, even if that pain happens to be cancer of any type. More valuable than a pain-free life, is a pleasing life that serves, honors and creates meaning that lasts well beyond a lifetime.
Do you have stories of good that has come from bad?
In your own life, have you found that the painful times have served a bigger purpose?
As always, please leave your feedback, comments or send me a Tweet shout-out @adriandparker with thoughts.