On Cancer and Prayer

Yesterday, Red River Church held an all-day fast-and-prayer meeting in the sanctuary for Renee Atkinson, the wife of our Ministry Coordinator (essentially our pastor) Keith Atkinson. Renee has been battling a rare form of leukemia for the past three years that has affected her skin and puts her in constant discomfort. After managing her illness up to this point, Renee's doctors recommended a bone marrow transplant this week, which is a daunting proposition. It will require that a perfect match is found (since Renee has no siblings, they are testing her three children), and even then, the odds of success are about 60%. In other words, her situation is not hopeless, but she's up against it.

Renee is one of the strongest women I've ever met. She is completely transparent, and makes fast friends quickly. Keith remarks all the time about her openness with her faith in his sermons. She's also tough and tends to be relentlessly upbeat. Even so, as we prayed for her yesterday, it was evident that the fight had worn her down.

Cancer is a big, scary thing that my family has become well acquainted with. In spring of 1999, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and undertook about seven hours of surgery to remove it. A couple of weeks later, and two days before I was to depart on summer-long trip to Russia, I ran into my mom at Schlotzsky's on Lamar, and over lunch, she informed me that a scan indicated that 10 of 13 examined lymph nodes were cancerous, making it likely that the cancer had spread. Her mother died from breast cancer that had spread, and she was understandably scared.

I took off for Russia with this in my thoughts. In the meantime, I know a lot of prayer was put in on behalf of my mom, and not just by me. A couple of weeks later, my mom got up in front of the church (quite uncharacteristically) and informed them that the cancer had not spread, thanking them for their prayers. The information got to me late due to transatlantic communication difficulties, but when I got the news in the form of a printed email, I strolled out into the late white Russian night, stared at the sky above the towering pinions and birches, and sat speechless, thankful to God for this grace to my mom and my family. I got the opportunity to see her, already bald from starting chemotherapy, at the airport a few weeks later.

With the cancer in remission, my mom started teaching special education at my old high school, I started my career, and time moved on. In late 2005, my mom experienced severe back problems that kept her home from work. A visit to her oncologist shortly after Christmas uncovered that the root cause was a tumor that had destroyed one of her vertebra and wrapped itself around her spinal cord. On the last Wednesday night of 2005, I sat with my mom and dad in St. David's hospital as the surgeon showed us an MRI of the tumor (it barely showed up on the X-ray), and my mom received the information calmly. My dad and I prayed for her, and I went home to tap out an email with a large amount of clinical language in it. For most of the next few weeks, I switched off my emotions, sent emails in my self-appointed role as family spokesman and became quite familiar with the inside of the St. David's ICU.

During those weeks, my family received a wealth of little kindnesses from many people. Even the guys I go to basketball games with sent flowers and called up to encourage me when I missed the games. My mom underwent two complex and intricate surgeries one week apart to remove the tumor (which had attached itself to the membrane of the spinal cord), and to replace the destroyed vertebra with a stainless steel plate. I know countless people prayed - they told me as much every time they saw me.

My mom's room in the ICU afforded a good view the UT Tower. I mention this because a week after her diagnosis, on January 4th, 2006, she and my dad looked outside and saw it bathed in orange, signifying that Vince Young and the Longhorns had brought home a long-awaited national championship in dramatic fashion. I watched the game in Killeen with friends, and I think part of the reason I still cherish that night is that, in addition to being a great reward for over twenty years of passionate devotion to my Longhorns, it was a perfect outlet for me to express a little of my pent-up emotion.

I put it to most people who asked, "All the news we heard after the initial diagnosis was good news." They removed the tumor, and my mom didn't even end up doing chemo during this round. She came out of the episode more frail than before, but she survived, and was able to return to school later that year.

My mom has frequent checkups, and a few months ago, they found another two spots of cancer. They caught them early, she is back on chemotherapy, and it seems to be working - the spots have reduced in size. Her prognosis is good, and as she puts it, "I'm in perfect health except that I have cancer." So far, so good.

My mom is fortunate to have good health insurance, and that many significant advances continue to be made in cancer research. The surgery methods used on her in late 2005 were developed quite recently, and she had a renowned surgeon perform it. Medical advances will continue to be made, and will make cancer more manageable. My mom possesses the ability to be realistic about her chances, a body with a resilient constitution and a healthy (if ornery) defiance that makes her a lousy patient. All that said, she has fared far better than expected more than once, and I'm convinced that this can be attributed to God hearing prayers on her behalf and intervening (and I think we can be thankful to God for the former things as well).

Not everyone has been as fortunate as my mom has been. I'm sure everyone knows someone who was cut down before their time because of cancer. The evil of cancer is in its cruelty - instead of ending the matter quickly, it takes its time, systematically destroying the body and exacting all the damage it can before the end mercifully comes. The problem of pain is one of the most profound we face as human beings. If God is good, then why does He allow suffering? Why does he allow some to live, and let others die? Where is He in the midst of tsunamis, hurricanes, wars, genocides, and on a more personal scale, cancer?

C.S. Lewis addressed it in The Problem of Pain, and he experienced the ups and downs of life with cancer firsthand. His wife, Joy Gresham, suffered two bouts with cancer. The first she miraculously recovered from, and afterwards she and Lewis enjoyed several years of profound happiness together. The second bout ended her life on earth. The God that Lewis knew did not promise a life absent trouble, challenges, or even suffering. And yet Lewis maintained (as does the Bible) that He is good.

Lewis's Narnia books may provide the best picture in all of literature of Jesus Christ in the person of Aslan, the lion. When my mom was in St. David's, my spiritual touchstone was this passage from The Magician's Nephew. In it, the boy Digory and his friend Polly haveis appointed a task by Aslan to fix a wrong they brought to Narnia at its creation. Digory is concerned about his mother back at home in England, and desperately wants Aslan's help:

"Son of Adam," said Aslan. "Are you ready to undo the wrong that you have done to my sweet country of Narnia on the very day of its birth?"

"Well, I don't see what I can do," said Digory. "You see, the Queen ran away and-"

"I asked, are you ready?" said the Lion.

"Yes," said Digory. He had had for a second some wild idea of saying, "I'll try to help you if you'll promise to help my mother," but he realized in time that the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with. But when he had said "Yes", he thought of his Mother, and he thought of the great hopes he had had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out:

"But please, please - won't you - can't you give me something that will cure Mother?" Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

"My son, my son," said Aslan. "I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another. But I have to think of hundreds of years in the life of Narnia. The Witch whom you have brought into this world will come back to Narnia again. But it need not be yet. It is my wish to plant in Narnia a tree that she will not dare to approach, and that tree will protect Narnia from her for many years. so this land shall have a long, bright morning before any clouds come over the sun. You must get me the seed from which that tree is to grow."

"Yes, sir," said Digory. He didn't know how it was to be done, but he felt quite sure now that he would be able to do it. The Lion drew a deep breath, stooped its head even lower and gave him a Lion's kiss. And at once Digory felt that new strength and courage had gone into him.

I am struck by the seeming paradox of Aslan first expressing compassion for Digory's mother, then demanding that he carry out a difficult task for the good of Narnia. This paradox is consistent with my experience of the Christian life, and in it is the very essence of faith. I don't believe faith to be a force of Holy Ghost Hocus Pocus that shoots from the hands of Benny Hinn to zap away sickness as the collection plates make their way down the aisles. Faith is an act of ruthless trust in Jesus Christ to forgive your sins (as you forgive others), meet your needs (with daily bread), and to bring forth His will on earth (as it is in heaven). It's not merely blessed assurance - in fact, it is best exercised in the absence of assurance. We are called to push all our chips to the center of the table and risk all on Christ, in spite of our disappointments, our suffering, and our doubts. We are called to follow His commands, especially when they are difficult and cost us something. Job expressed it when he said, "Though He slay me, yet I will trust Him." Paul expressed it when he said that he said "To live is Christ; to die is gain." The persistent widow from the parable exemplified it when she continued to knock on the door of the unjust judge until he gave her justice. This is the type of faith that moves mountains, plants mulberry bushes in the sea, lays waste to the plans of the devil, and on occasion, heals cancer.

And so we will continue to pray for Renee Atkinson and her family, for God to intervene on her behalf, and for her and Keith to grow old together. We don't know how this will turn out, but we put our faith in the One who looks on Renee with a depth of compassion that is beyond our understanding. He may not be tame, but he's good.


At 10:52 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Cancer is a big scary thing and its in my family far too often recently.

My grandfather, Earl, was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. The first sign was back pain that turned out to be three tumors impinging on the spinal column. The doctors removed one tumor and rebuilt the spine (C3, 4 and 5) but the other two they simply cut back and left in. His prognosis is terminal and he will probably never walk again or leave the hospital. Eileen and I will go visit to say goodbye in a couple of weeks.

Earl has been everything a grandfather should be and I count it a blessing that he has had a long life. I pray I am blessed to have the life he has lived.

My dad is having a prostate biopsy this afternoon. There's no way of knowing what the prognosis will be. I'm worried, but I lay this at Christ's feet and live in hope. Given my dad's heart problems, the past 15 years have been a gift. God has already extended His grace to my family as my sister and I grew up an entered adulthood.

I think cancer is the perfect analogue for sin. It starts small and unnoticed. A genetic heresy if you will. Soon it begins to co-opt resources and interfere with normal, healthy functions. Later it spreads and consumes more resources, eventually causing system after system to crash. We can see it in the individual as well as the church: sin is a cancer that will kill Christian faith.

Thanks be to God! that Christ has conquered sin and death and by the power for the Holy Spirit we are given faith resulting in justification. God has declared His people justified by His Word - He literally says the Christian is justified. "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever."

At 9:12 PM, Anonymous Erica said...

I was actually coming to your blog to get your email address for an update on your mom. I think about her very often and keep her in my prayers. Thanks for the update.


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