Deeper thoughts about “Living with Melanoma" (see previous post)...
There are two reasons that occur to me why people who have been diagnosed with melanoma would want to attend a symposium like this: 1) They want to know how they might live longer, if they need systemic treatment; and 2) they want to know how their lives can be made more comfortable while living with melanoma or recovering from treatment. The program was set up to provide at least partial answers to both concerns.
What struck me as conspicuously absent was the biggest, most interesting question of all: Where is God in our suffering and dis-ease, and can divine guidance help make sense of a diagnosis of advanced cancer?
I realize that not everyone cares about matters of faith. Many who do are often satisfied with little more than pop psychology. The only ovation received by a speaker on Saturday was a middle-aged woman, a stage-four survivor who spoke with humor and passion about her personal journey through cancer and how she draws strength from within. While I commend her courage in the face of a dire prognosis, I ultimately found her resolve to be hollow at its core. She has a Buddhist, “circle of life” philosophy and made no reference to a transcendent God. Lots of people in the auditorium liked what she had to say.
Alas, I find no hope in a Godless cosmos. Some people apparently do, and come to terms with their ultimate fate as stardust. It appeared that what people liked most about this woman’s story was not necessarily her therapeutic language or New Age aplomb, but her soaring optimism. She seems at peace with her diagnosis. So am I, but I’ve arrived there by a very different road.
Would someone who speaks from an explicitly Christian perspective on issues of life and death be appropriate for a melanoma symposium? Of course. I believe people with cancer are aching for anything that gives them authentic hope, but I doubt I’ll live to hear such a speaker at a public forum. The hope that animates my life comes from the triune God of the Bible. That makes what I believe “religious,” while what we heard in Seattle was a potent demonstration of the power of positive thinking. Both approaches can potentially assist with healing through mysterious pathways, but only faith in God reveals truth about what happens to us after death.
That, in a nutshell, is the offense: The steps I take in my medical treatment are not my only or even my primary concern. Knowing this makes all the difference in how I live, and in how I respond to my cancer. I’m at least as concerned about tending to my relationship with God as I am to my physical body. This, by the way, is a discipline that requires conscious, ongoing effort. It does not always come naturally to me.
I appreciate the fact that there are skilled, dedicated people working on drug development and treatment protocols that might extend my life, should I need them. Some of these earnest researchers were at the Seattle meeting. It is not pure altruism that motivates them. They are awarded money, power and prestige for their efforts. Not only are lives at stake in the cancer business, but the financial bets being made are enormous. While it may cost a billion dollars or more to run one drug through the research and regulatory gauntlet, that drug—if it ends up being commonly prescribed—can generate a billion dollars or more in monthly revenue. The whole research enterprise revolves around the prospect of career advancement and potential riches for those involved.
That, of course, is what capitalism is all about. Would I prefer the world to be organized differently? Well, yes, if that were to mean that the billions spent to give cancer survivors a few more weeks or months of life could be directed instead to provide clean water, food and shelter for those who go without, or to provide free Head Start programs for inner city kids. Yes, if that were to mean that the comfort and support of cancer patients was placed ahead of the exigencies of doctors, hospitals and insurance companies. Yes, if that were to mean that merely extending life through drug trials (typical for some forms of cancer) was replaced by an ethic of bringing meaning to life independent of the disease itself. It’s a tragedy that the almost exclusive focus of cancer care is on the disease and not the patient—as if we might live forever if we could only survive the current crisis. Our doctors and the whole healthcare enterprise overlook what matters deeply for many patients, but which is rarely acknowledged: How do I make sense of what’s happening to me? How much care is enough? Where do I draw a line, if need be? Where do I find comfort and understanding?
What I heard at the Seattle symposium is that efforts to find a cure for melanoma will not cease. Fighting cancer is what we, as a society, do really well, even if curing its many guises has proved more elusive. We’ve learned a thing or two about how melanoma can be treated that extends life. It’s slow, tough, complex, expensive work. Questioning the ethics of devoting such extraordinary resources to this process is not good manners, especially for someone like myself who has benefitted personally from the legacy of medical science. To some extent I’m held hostage to the expectation that I will follow traditional courses of treatment and accept the status quo. It’s what we as Americans do. As a layman, it’s hard to paddle against the current of expert opinion.
What I have committed to doing, however, is not allow the medical response to a disease process become my god. I believe this is where many people end up, not because they want to but because they’re frightened by the prospect of sickness and death and they have nothing else to fill the void inside them. To know that a new drug has been found in a clinical trial that extends remission from melanoma by two months is not, to my reckoning, the right place in which to place our faith. But we all find hope where we can. I will continue to seek it through a loving God who may not have been invited to the “Living with Melanoma” symposium, but who showed up anyway, invisible, patient, and ready.