In the grand scheme of things, what happened and didn’t happen in the OR on Friday may not matter much. Metastatic melanoma is relentless and it takes more than a garden-variety miracle to stop it. There was still a nasty looking met removed from my arm, and I have a gnarly scar to prove it. That procedure was not trivial.
Nevertheless, the nodule that was once in my left thigh—and then wasn’t—gives me pause. There are documented cases in which cancer is known to spontaneously regress (in the absence of treatment), but they’re rare. For melanoma, I’ve read that about 1 out of every 400 tumors will completely resolve. That’s not a number to take to the bank, but it gives you some idea of how unusual these events are. Oncologists don’t like to talk about them for fear of giving patients false hope.
I can’t let this occasion pass without acknowledging and thanking the many people who have prayed for me the last three and a half years, including those who have specifically asked God that I be healed of all cancer. I’ve talked to God about this matter myself on a few occasions. It is through prayer and supplication that I make my desires known to God. And I know that he hears them, and has heard the prayers of many of you.
One evening three weeks ago, a group of eight friends (all Hispanic men) gathered around and laid hands on me in my living room. For 20 minutes they shouted, cried and murmured for my healing. They did this believing it would make a difference. That same evening, in a very different cultural context, I went to a special gathering at our Presbyterian church, where I was again prayed for, and anointed with oil—which is the spiritual equivalent of sending up a flare to signal someone in desperate need. One friend laid his hand directly above my knee where the tumor was. He asked that God would take it from me. He too is a man who prays boldly.
It was a week or so later that I noticed that the mass seemed to be shrinking. I didn’t expect it to, and it wasn’t like I was checking it every hour. My faith does not rest on God needing to respond to my every request and petition. God is God and he will do as he pleases. That means he will sometimes heal people, and sometimes not. He is not a cosmic bellboy.
I have also read enough to know that the human immune system is a remarkably potent force in the body, but sadly not always the match for cancer. On occasion, the so-called killer T cells of the immune system belatedly attack and kill malignancies. At other times, our tissue can induce defective cells to kill themselves. The genetic chaos that reigns within the many billions of cells in our bodies goes unnoticed… until an event like this happens. Assuming the mass in my leg was a metastasis, I don’t much care if the cells there were murdered or committed suicide. The end result was an answer to prayer. A nodule the size of a marble that my surgeon probed himself in his office was gone days later.
Was it a miracle? Is this the sort of outcome hoped for by people who travel to Lourdes to bathe in holy water? I leave it for others to decide.
I wrote a couple of years ago about pneumapsychosomatic healing, a term coined by Dr. Paul Brand to describe the combined role of spirit, soul and body in maintaining health. This concept leaves room for the positive effect of modern medicine without precluding the power of mind and the Holy Spirit in the healing of the sick. I am more inclined to believe that it was the combined powers of body, soul and spirit that defeated the cancer in my leg. Why that mass dissolved and not the one in my arm, or why the melanoma recurred in the first place, I can’t say. I confess the progression of this disease seems pretty arbitrary.
The obvious questions flood in: Did I not pray correctly at other times, or did the arm nodule somehow fly in under the radar? What about the future: Can I expect that if asked, God will eradicate all cancer from my body? Does admitting that I’m uncertain about these things betray a spiritual fecklessness? Why would he heal me and not someone else of equally sincere faith or of no faith? What’s the proper balance between prayer and medical care? And should I have had the residual melanoma cells removed from my face on Friday, or might they too succumb to pneumapsychosomatic healing? There are no easy answers. There is more mystery here than I’m comfortable with.
Author and pastor Henri Nouwen has written that many of us are tempted to think that if we suffer, the only important thing is to be relieved of our pain. We want to flee it at all costs. But when we move through suffering, rather than avoid it, then we greet it differently. We become willing to let it teach us. We even begin to see how God can use it for some larger end.
I wish Henri was still around so I could ask him: So are we not meant to pursue prayers for healing that would relieve us of suffering? By pursuing them, do we in some way deny God the very opportunity he’s presented us to come into a deeper sense of his love? Are we working at cross-purposes? I suspect that we do sometimes thwart God’s will for us because we pray wrongly. We certainly live wrongly, so why would we suddenly get things right when we fold our hands and close our eyes? It’s as if God indulges us by allowing us to pray, knowing that we’re serious amateurs at its practice. He nevertheless calls us to try. And so I do. I can’t not pray.
I’ve seen enough godly people die fighting to know that there seems to be a biological imperative to survival. I think it was the Jeff Goldblum character in “Jurassic Park” who said that life will not be denied. He was probably talking about dinosaurs, but I take his point. We have a will to live, even when we’re suffering—perhaps especially when we suffer. It will not do to suffer physically, and not consider it wrong. The body will fight death, when it approaches. People who are drowning rarely sink like a rock. They thrash and gasp for breath. I have felt this way sometimes when I pray.
Out of all this uncertainty I take the empirical fact that I had a tumor in my leg, that it vanished, and that no human can take credit for that. I believe God has given me a small tutorial of his power, and that I’m meant to understand that his ability to heal a human body, just as his capacity to create the cosmos, is unlimited and, by human standards, unfathomable. I cannot expect to avoid shadowed valleys and long nights, but he never leaves me without a burning candle. What the medical record will officially record as spontaneous remission I count as a sample of God’s grace. What he did was but a scintilla of his ferocious love for me.
I see my surgeon again on Thursday at my post-op. Assuming he’s given a second thought to what happened, I’ll be interested to hear what he has to say about it. He’s already warned me that I can only go so long “chasing mets” with surgery before more aggressive therapy may be in order. In the meanwhile, I will continue my prayer therapy and know that God is ready, able and willing to touch me and give me hope.