Christ and Cancer | My Only Hope in Life and Death
Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?
A: That I am not my own (1 Cor. 6:19-20), but belong - body and soul, in life and in life and in death (Rom. 14:7-9) to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:23, Titus 2:14).
- Heidelberg Catechism
“Happy belated birthday!” the cheerful receptionist greeted after I gave her my birth date to confirm my identity. I smiled back politely, but in my head I grumbled, “Like I really want to be going in for a bone marrow biopsy a week after my 31st birthday to see whether or not I have cancer.”
Let me take a step back. The start of 2015 was an exciting time for me. I had just started an exciting new job at Google. Jenn and I were finally feeling settled into our house. And, to top all of that off, we had made the decision to pursue adoption.
For much of January the two of us plowed headlong into the adoption process. We filled out applications that seemed to go on forever, we met with a social worker for our home study visit, and we began to collect the mountain of paperwork required by the agency. After gathering things like our birth certificates, marriage certificate, various financial documents, and letters of recommendations from friends and family, one of the final items needed for our adoption packet was a notarized clean bill of health from our doctors.
I hadn’t been to a doctor since high school, so I did a quick Google search to find one and set up an appointment. I got a routine blood test and then met with my new doctor for my physical. After an uneventful checkup, I handed my doctor the adoption form. He signed off on everything, we got the document notarized, and I prepared excitedly to leave, happy to be one step closer to adopting a child.
As I exited the exam room, the doctor called out with some final words. “Before you leave, Bryan, I need you to take another blood test. Everything came back fine, but you had elevated protein levels in your blood. It’s probably nothing which is why I signed off on your form, but we should probably just look into that.”
I gladly obliged and took the blood test; I didn’t give it much of a second thought. Little did I know that that second blood test would lead to more blood tests, a CT scan, a full-body X-Ray, and finally a bone marrow biopsy.
I was formally diagnosed with multiple myeloma (MM) on March 4, 2015. Multiple myeloma is a cancer that starts in plasma cells in the bone marrow. It’s a cancer that typically affects the older generation, with the median age of diagnosis being roughly 70 years old. Throughout my weeks of testing, my oncologist held firmly to the belief that I couldn’t have myeloma—it’s extremely rare for someone at my age to have the disease while not experiencing the common symptoms. MM is considered a “treatable but incurable” disease. This means that there are treatment options that can control the disease for a while, but at some point patients run out of options.
Being diagnosed with an incurable cancer was a shock, to say the least. For the first few days following the diagnosis, I simply felt numb. I couldn’t process what such news meant for me and my family. As the shock wore off, I experienced a mix of emotions, from deep sadness to renewed hope in Christ. The day after getting diagnosed, I wrote down six things that I knew to be true:
1. God is good. Always.
2. I do not deserve better.
3. God is refining me, not punishing me.
4. God can heal me, but He might not.
5. God controls the number of days I will be alive.
6. As a child of God, I do not fear death.
As I meditated on each of the above truths, it became much easier to come to terms with having cancer. In the weeks following my diagnosis, I tangibly felt the love and grace of God in so many ways. God used so many dear brothers and sisters to encourage me and Jenn and point us to the truths found in Scripture. He brought to mind all the ways that He had proven Himself faithful in my life already, strengthening my faith in Him. The fact that He was moving me and Jenn along the path to adoption so that I would get a physical when I was feeling completely healthy is just one huge reminder that God was in control.
Here are just a few of the big lessons I’ve learned in my cancer journey thus far.
Rejoicing Is Not Incompatible with Lament
When I was first diagnosed, I felt guilty feeling sad about my condition. After all, weren’t there countless others in worse situations? I would reflect on all the ways that God had richly blessed me, and I would come to the conclusion that feeling any form of sorrow was sheer selfishness and lack of gratitude.
However, as the Holy Spirit pointed my heart to the Psalms, I came to see that God’s people mourn and lament. I found that the Psalms gave me a voice when I didn’t know how to talk with God. The psalmists are not shy about expressing their pain and sorrows before God. And yet, in the midst of the psalmists’ laments, they express unwavering hope in Christ (see Psalm 6:2-7).
God Cannot Be Manipulated
As I prayed for healing, I found that I began to view my prayers as magical incantations. I found myself constantly varying my prayers, foolishly thinking that the right combination of words would cause God to heal me. Over time I was convicted. I was reminded that “God is in the heavens; He does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). I still pray for healing, but those prayers are secondary to the prayer that God would be glorified in me, through whatever form that might look like.
Cancer is a Stewardship
One of the interesting things about having cancer is that everyone seems to want to listen more. My words seem to carry more weight these days. It was after talking to the third or fourth non-Christian and sharing all the ways that God had been blessing me in the midst of this cancer journey that I realized having cancer is a stewardship. As with all things, God will ultimately hold me accountable with how I managed this disease and used conversations about my cancer to point others toward Christ.
The Potter Determines the Fate of the Clay
It's very tempting to think God's sovereign plan revolves around us. To be fair, each of us are part of God's glorious plan to seek and save sinners and to bring glory to Himself. But think about it: God could have had each of us born on the other side of the world, or a thousand years ago, or not at all. He could have made us a different gender or born to different parents. Yet, in His omniscience and sovereignty, He decided that the plans He laid out were perfect and would bring Him the most glory. That God would include us in this divine story is awe-inspiring and humbling.
It would be easy for people in my situation (and even more in situations that are far more difficult) to question how this is fair. I'm reminded, however, of the truth of Romans 9:20-21. God is the sovereign, all- wise potter; we are but the clay. As the potter, He gets to decide the purpose for each lump of clay.
We might be tempted to doubt His goodness when bad things come our way. However, the potter isn't just a potter; He's our loving, heavenly Father; He knows what's good for us.
Christ is My Only Comfort in Life and Death
Prior to my cancer diagnosis, I didn’t think too much about death. I was comforted by all of the things God had blessed me with—good health, a stable job, a place to live. The day after getting diagnosed with cancer, I cried out to God and confessed what I should have from the beginning—that I had been misplacing my hope in things that would pass away. And while I would like to say that I trusted in Christ alone from that point onward, it hasn’t been that simple. I still struggle to hope in Christ more than favorable test results.
It’s still easy to be comforted by my weekly test results that show my cancer going down. It’s tempting to be comforted by the drugs that I’m taking and the scientific advancements that researchers are making. However, as I’ve learned in this journey, the cancer can come back at any time, drugs may wax and wane in effectiveness, and research can be stymied by a multitude of factors.
Right now my life is full of uncertainty, but I’ve come to realize that there is only one true source of hope and comfort in this life—Jesus Christ. The first time I came across the Heidelberg Catechism, it brought tears to my eyes. To be reminded that I am not my own was freeing. On my own, I have no idea how to navigate this cancer trial. But, I’m not my own; I belong to my faithful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He bought me with His blood and promises to never leave or forsake me. He removes the sting of death and gives me the hope of eternity with Him. He is my only comfort in life and death.