It would not be an understatement to describe cancer as the disease of our time. In his thoroughly insightful book, author and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee had even gone to the extent of christening it as the “Emperor of All Maladies”. With an estimated 1 in 4 risk of a person developing cancer, it would be surprising to find an individual who has been spared from the reaches of cancer in some form or another; whether it be a relative or friend who is stricken, or oneself being a victim of the disease. In this exposition, we will explore the basis of cancer from a Christian perspective and examine what it means for a believer to live with cancer.
The term ‘cancer’ is derived from the Greek word ‘karcinos’ which in fact refers to a crab or crayfish. It was first coined by Hippocrates, having described the appearance of a cut tumour as appearing crab-like. In essence, all cancerous lesions begin with a single cell division that has gone awry, a result of genetic mutations which may be inherited or induced by external agents such as cigarette smoke. Normal cell division is in fact a very tightly controlled and well-oiled process in our body. There are multiple checkpoints and safety mechanisms to prevent mutations from occurring. To put things in perspective, the development of a foetus also begins with the division of a single cell and these divisions continue till the day we die. Yet, what is frightening about cancer is its ability to mimic normal cells, dodge termination by our immunity’s gatekeepers and take over cellular mechanisms of division for its own survivability, and growing at exponential rates to quickly overwhelm the body.
As Christians, we believe that all diseases are a consequence of the fall of man into sin and it is no different for cancer. Romans 5:12 states, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Yet what does set cancer apart from other diseases is the striking spiritual symbolism that can be found in its unique characteristics.
First, the development of cancer in an individual parallels the fall of man into sin. Like man, whom God had created in “His own image” (Genesis 1:27), cancer cells begin as copies of our very own cells, identical down to the molecule. Then, just as Adam and Eve fell into temptation by way of the serpent and desired to take God’s place, cancer cells mimic the functions of normal cells, rising in rebellion to war against and seek to overwhelm their origin.
Second, fallen man is obsessed with self—self-preservation, self- gratification, and self-fulfilment—and this is similarly a key feature in the behaviour of cancer cells. Cancer cells deprive neighbouring normal cells of their blood supply and oxygen by invading them with its own network of blood vessels, literally suffocating normal cells as they themselves grow, divide, and conquer.
Last, like sin, cancer cells are aggressive, pervasive and devious. Just as sin and temptation have spread to the ends of the world, through the works of depraved man, cancer cells are able to pass through blood vessels and lymphatic fluid to settle in distant organs, forming satellite sites for further growth and devastation. Additionally, just as sin develops over time in order to appear acceptable and even beneficial to mankind (consider the sinfulness of modern media), cancer cells are able to mutate and adapt to evade our body’s own immune system and develop resistance to medical drugs. Cancer cells are also able to lie dormant and undetectable for years, just as the seed of sin can be planted without suspicion.
In many ways, cancer as a disease appears to have a mind of its own, a sinister mind that parallels that of the devil, as he seeks to spread sin throughout the world and destroy God’s people, much like a vile tumour that grows and spirals beyond control. It is this remarkable parallelism that draws one to believe that God’s purpose in allowing cancer to exist in this world is not simply a punishment for our sinful nature but also a revelation to His people. Patients and their loved ones face immense sorrow and wrath upon knowing that they are stricken by cancer, as their own body-cells rise in rebellion, drawing away their strength and vitality day by day. With that in mind, consider how much deeper God’s grief and sorrow must be, having witnessed His own creation rise in rebellion, and spread and grow in unrighteousness, disobedience, and sin? Yet, God continues to love His people and desires for our salvation; a love with such limitless boundaries that it is beyond our understanding (Ephesians 3:18); a love so great that He had cast all His wrath upon Jesus Christ in order to spare us. Imagine a patient with advanced cancer looking upon his own disease and saying “I love you”—impossible, but that is exactly what God has done for us (Romans 5:8,10).
God’s own elect are not spared from cancer, just as we each struggle with our old man of sin (Romans 7:15) and remain in our worldly and fallen bodies. It is a natural response for believers to question, “Why me?” upon knowledge of their diagnosis. Some may even feel angry with God for giving cancer as an affliction despite their faith and good works. As Reformed Christians, we are convicted by the words of Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Even through the pain and suffering, an elect child of God may take great comfort in this truth that God is sovereign over all things and has a perfect plan for His people.
God is glorified in the life of an elect stricken with cancer, not because God assures a worldly cure for all believers, but because a child of God looks forward to a heavenly home and has complete faith in Christ’s power over sin and death. A child of God knows that faith cannot be kept in the medications of this world, but only in God; through which neither cancer nor any other guiles of the devil may follow us into our heavenly bodies. Such a constant and abiding faith even through times of suffering is like a shining light that bears testimony to others of God’s glory and might. How encouraging it is to a young believer, to see a fellow believer bear a smile through his afflictions, having the hope of eternal life beyond this earth.
In conclusion, Siddhartha Mukherjee was not mistaken to name cancer as the “emperor of all maladies” for it is in God’s sovereign will the fruit of the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2 , 2 Corinthians 4:4), being an almost perfect representation of the sin that wages war in this world, displayed within our human bodies. However, we can have complete faith in the conquering power of Christ who is the “King of kings, and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).
Written by: Koh Zong Jie | Issue 38