Monday, June 11, 2012

Fearfully and wonderfully made

I credit my immune system with keeping me alive. It’s not fail-safe, or I wouldn’t have developed melanoma in the first place, but in contemplating the possible reasons for my long-term survival, this is where I’ve arrived. I can’t help but wonder why I’ve been spared.

The stalemate status of my cancer—present but not advancing aggressively—can be explained by some combination of four factors that occur to me.
1.) My immune system is keeping the melanoma more or less in check. It’s  been documented that many cancer survivors with increased survival times report high levels of certain immune system components. These include the number of NK (natural killer) cells, monocyte function, the proportion of circulating granulocytes, and other equally esoteric factors. In each case, strenuous exercise adds an extra margin of improvement. For me, running 25 or so miles a week kicks up the antibodies in my immune system. To say that I run to live is not a hollow sentiment.

2.) My melanoma is slow growing. This is pretty obvious given the fact that my cancer became metastatic two and a half years ago and I’m still here. There are several histological differences between indolent and aggressive cancers, including how many cells have abnormal nuclei and the proportion that are dividing at any given moment. Having a low-grade form of melanoma is the luck of the draw. Cancers in different people act differently. Genetically speaking, everyone’s cancer is uniquely their’s. I can take no credit for the genome with which I’ve been endowed, nor can I assign it blame. It simply is what it is.
3.) The many surgical interventions I’ve had keep my “tumor burden” to a minimum. By removing metastases when they appear, I give my immune system a boost and allow it to focus on the microscopic distribution of cancer cells elsewhere. This is another immunologic abstraction, but it makes sense: Cancer kills when you simply have more malignant cells in your body than the immune system can handle. The interferon treatment I staggered through in 2006 may also have boosted my immune system in some unmeasurable way that improved my odds.

4.) I have been showered by the grace of God. Countless prayers have been said on my behalf by many people I know, and a few I don’t, over the last six years. There’s no way to quantify the effect of this intercession with the Almighty, but I'd be a fool not to believe in its power. It’s an amazing gift. When I pray for myself, I ask that the cancer in my body be defeated by the natural, everyday miracle of my immune system. When I run, I visualize NK cells destroying melanoma cells and pray that God would speed them on their mission. A God who spoke whole galaxies into existence can certainly heal me of cancer—if he chooses to do so.
So in a nutshell, I pray, I run and, when necessary, I visit a doctor to treat my cancer. I’m not certain this reductionism would stand up to biomedical scrutiny, but someone will need to come up with some other blinding insight to convince me I’m wrong. In Psalm 139, it’s written, “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well.” Cancer is indeed a disease of the genes, but that doesn’t diminish the wondrousness of how God has made me. That I live at all is proof of that. My immune system is part of the reason why.

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