Cancer is a wicked word. It is birthed from doctors’ lips like slime out of an exhaust pipe. They walk away in their pasty lab coats unaffected, and you are left reeling – hoping for breath, grasping for an explanation. By the time you are able to look up again, unstable tears stand menacingly between your eyes and the slowly disappearing vision of their silhouette sauntering away. Before sputtering a word, you are led like a child to a pathetic room of white walls, white floors, and white sheets. Those walls should be tried for first-degree murder of the sensible mind. Those floors should be taken to court for lack of inspiration. And those sheets would do well to soil themselves instead of being the passive partner in an endless cycle of inevitable stains and commercial-grade bleach. And that bed – a bed just about large enough to hold the statistically average American midget with his or her 2.05 midget children. A bed with coversheets the color of aquamarine bird droppings, pillows the size of pillboxes, and a frame with angles that would make a masochistic contortionist scream. But, apparently, it’s the best place to be right now. At least, that’s what they say.
But I don’t need to tell you this. You probably already know all about it, from personal experience or from that of a loved one. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be reading this. And the point of this essay is not to tell anyone how miserable cancer is. If it were, I would be preaching to the choir. I am to put myself in the shoes of a man who battled and won. This victory came even with his death. The evil of cancer is that it tries, and often succeeds, to rob you of your spirit. It takes your body along with it, but so does life. That is inescapable, cancer or not. In all senses of the word, triumph came to James Rhio O’Connor. This was not chance, luck, or a roll of the dice. Even though his mesothelioma was instigated by that nasty substance called asbestos, this was no random act of misfortune. This was the result of his brave approach to face the battle and of God’s sovereign concession: human agency and fate working together for greatness.
Attitude is not everything, but it certainly helps. If I were given a dire cancer prognosis, I would ideally like to say I would rejoice. Rejoice because I have a family to support me every step of the way. Rejoice because life will go on for everyone else. Rejoice because only now have I received such a blow, and not the countless other times that I have been exposed to danger in my life and been protected. Rejoice because I have just enjoyed twenty beautiful years of breathing and laughing and crying and loving. “Ideally” is the key word, however. Realistically, seeing as we unfortunately do not live in an ideal world, I know that my dreams would be dashed, my goals punished, and my treasures ripped away. And yet, as my favorite book says, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:3-5). I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that joy – even when circumstances do not call for it – would be able to get me not out of, but around, the travails of terminal illness. I would be despondent, but as my body wasted away, I would know for certain where the rest of me (the part that truly matters and lasts) is going.
As far as treatment during the physical war, I would gather together every resource around me as my weapons of warfare. I would be armed with references to oncologists, physicians, nurses, ministers, nutritionists, and therapists from head to toe. I would search high and low and drop all else if even the wisp of a cure were visible along the horizon.
However, “the cure” is not always evident, and faith’s products are not always manifest in health. That is why it is called faith: “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not [yet] see” (Hebrews 11:1). If chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery would not prove to be effective, and nothing else was stopping the dark metastasis, I would continue. For as long as I had left, I would put one foot in front of the other. We do not make our own paths, for if we did, we would surely have 6.5 billion lost souls on this planet. We discover roads which others have taken, for better or for worse, and accept or reject them respectively. I would seek wise counsel and deny any words of pessimism and doubt. I would walk firmly with a trusting face pointed at the sky, because I am sure looking down dejectedly would be of no benefit to anyone. Informed decisions for the course of my treatment would most likely come from consulting with those who are wisest in their fields of specialty. Many sick people believe they have no resources because they have never gone looking for them. Once found, one discovers that they go well beyond the hospital’s walls. My health management – ominous prognosis or otherwise – would include aspects of care encompassing the holism of my body, mind, and soul. Those three components of myself cannot work apart, so they would be treated as one.
My decisions would be, as they all are now, based upon external and internal factors affecting the peace of my own and of those around me. I would never allow myself to choose anything that would hinder the spread of love on this planet. This may indeed sound quite similar to a “flower child” mindset, but I resolutely believe in its validity and practicality. If I were to be reduced to a bald, cancerous vegetable with limbs and a PICC line and still be able to be helpful to others, so be it. But if my loved ones knew that the way they could best love me, and I myself for that matter, would be to hold my hand while I obediently walked to an inevitable death, so be it. My desire would not be to die, but whose is? Nevertheless, we will all arrive at the finish line someday, so I would choose to reach it with my hands held high above my head crying tears of accomplishment and exhilaration from the ride.
By the grace of God and educated health decisions in my life, however, I do not have cancer, much less terminal cancer. I am two weeks shy of my twenty-first birthday; I have no smoke in my lungs or alcohol in my liver; I have low blood pressure and high immune defenses. I am healthy. Any speculation I could make concerning the response I would have in a metaphorical future in the case of a disastrous prognosis is just that: speculation. But in all things, I pray that I would have the means to take every step with diligence and motivation to be better suited for my purpose in this life. If that is to love and serve anyone and everyone with my mind, body, and soul until I am eighty-two, I would press on gladly. If it is to teach those passing me by about how to live while you’re alive, I would press on gladly. If it is to go into surgery knowing that it’s just a body and I can’t keep it anyway, I would press on gladly. For gladness is the clothing of those who know full well that the morning will surely follow the night. In that, we can all have hope and live accordingly.