I was really not very aware of cancer’s reach until a friend contracted prostate cancer about 20 years ago. Soon after that, another friend was diagnosed with the same illness and, shortly thereafter, I awoke from a colonoscopy to learn that I had cancer.
A year of chemotherapy followed that — along with family love, the care of a superb oncologist, Louis Vandermolen, a support group at Hoag Hospital, and a strong will to survive — completely cured me.
All was well for 10 years until I received another grim diagnosis: prostate cancer of a quite virulent type. At this point, one begins to feel a bit like the biblical Job who initially blessed God despite a succession of catastrophes but ultimately began to rage against the Almighty for his afflictions. But once again, I summoned a full-court press, including chemotherapy and radiation, to fight the malady to the point of being progression free.
So I have had much time to reflect on cancer, this ubiquitous disease that will touch one of every two men and one of every three women, and lately took the life of a close friend’s 38-year-old daughter. The cure rate of some cancers — e.g., testicular, cervical, melanoma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma — have improved markedly while other types — lung, pancreatic and esophageal — have remained stubbornly resistant. Yet, early detection has increased survival rates for breast, colon and prostate cancers.
In a splendid and Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” Siddhartha Mukherjee traces the centuries-old quest to cure cancer. It is an amazing, poignant tale of frustrating disappointments and stunning triumphs, of powerful egos and dedicated intellects in a quest for the holy grail of a universal cure.
But, despite all the progress that has been made, Dr. Mukherjee concludes that the disease will always be with us, though more preventable and curable with each generation. As our cells continue to divide and our bodies age, as mutations pile upon mutations, cancer might define the “inherent outer limit of our survival.”
In one sense this may seem a grim analysis, but it is also marvelous. We are possessed of an organism, the human body, that is wondrous in its complexity and adaptability, but whose cells contain the formulas both for life and death.
As I reflect on my own journey of faith amid this dance with cancer, I am filled with awe at what the Universal Spirit has done in producing life in all its splendid, variegated forms. But I am also angry at God that so many millions of people have felt and will feel this savage affliction.
Is such anger counter-productive? Only, I believe, if one simply remains angry and does nothing positive in response.
What then to do? We should support cures for cancers, for many are required. We should comfort those with cancer through love and visits, prayers and encouragement.
Can prayer actually send a cancer into remission? Some believe so. Others — like myself — are more skeptical.
When I confided to Milton Gordon, the president of Cal State Fullerton, where I teach, that I had prostate cancer, he said he’d pray for me.
Whether God heard that prayer and kept me alive, I cannot say. What I know is that my spirits were lifted in that instant, and the human spirit is indispensable to any cure of this imperial disease.
BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD is professor emeritus of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton.