The Emperor of Maladies and the Everlasting Arms

When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, your world changes forever. Suddenly, you see everything through the prism of anxiety. You are afraid to make plans, afraid to laugh, afraid to presume. Life is no longer about living; it becomes about surviving. Normal service is suspended. A shadow lies heavy over everything and threat hangs in the air. Your life, that fragile, bird’s egg of a thing that you have constructed so carefully, may be crushed at any moment.

I lost my granny to cancer many years ago, when I was nine. Then, when I was eighteen, news came that my friend’s mother, a wonderful, funny, vital woman, pillar of my childhood, was dying. It was the first time in my life I ever experienced the kind of shock that makes the breath leave your body. And when I was 38, my husband was diagnosed.

All that time passed between my granny’s diagnosis and Donnie’s, and yet the word had lost none of its power to frighten. It feels like the same strong enemy it has always been. There are not too many conditions that’s true of. Small wonder that Siddhartha Mukherjee called it ‘the emperor of all maladies’. A sadistic emperor, I would venture, one that loves to create pain and grief.

What is the purpose of all this suffering? We are no more entitled to know the answer to that question than we are to know the other great mysteries of the universe. Faith is content with the fact that there is a purpose.

I have come to the conclusion that, just as sin is sin, trial is trial: there is no gradation in God’s eyes. If you have Him, you can go through it, whatever it is. Cancer scares us, but He works everything for good; whether that’s healing and recovery, or bringing you home to be with Him.

The biggest question is not, actually, why does He permit this suffering, but rather, how does He want us to go through it? We have already got part of the answer. He wants us to go through it with our eye fixed on Him. And I believe He wants us to be overwhelmed with fear, or pain. Not because He is a sadist or any of the other blasphemy that people like Stephen Fry accuse Him of, but because He wants us to stop trying to do everything on our own. It is possible that, as CS Lewis put it, pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

Not long ago, our prayer meeting heard of Joshua and the parting of the Jordan. The Ark of the Covenant led the Israelites through the river and onwards to the Promised Land. In our own wildernesses, we need to do the same: fix our eyes on the Lord that leads us through every Jordan.

It’s easy to let sheer sick terror paralyse you when you’re worrying about a loved one. But you need to take that worry to the throne of grace. In my own most despairing moments, I did and this was the answer I got:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
2 Corinthians 5:1

In the awful minutes after hearing that Donnie would die, the nurse who broke the news said, ‘if I could take this from you, I would’. It’s exactly how I feel every time I hear of another cancer diagnosis: the word itself is an assault on my heart. Anyone who has gone through it would not on any account see another suffer that fear and that pain which the word, ‘cancer’ always brings.  Yet, I know that God blesses us in these trials too, if we will only hold fast to Him.

Don’t listen to the people who tell you that you will get a back according to the burden; you won’t. He carries the burden with you and sometimes for you. God WILL give you more than you can bear, because He wants you to hand it straight back to Him. Your strength will not be up to this, but His is more than sufficient.

Shared adversity brings people together. How much more, then,  does it create closeness with God when you allow Him to carry you. I know that cancer brought my late husband into much closer communion with his Lord, and gave Him assurance of salvation. It did as much for me too. Cancer was, for us, the ugly messenger which brought good news. We no longer have one another, but we each have something infinitely better and lasting.

Cancer is not a person. It is not an enemy with plans, or feelings. We give it too much power. When it comes into our lives, like every other test and adversity – or, for that matter, every blessing and joy – we need to commit it into God’s safekeeping. He knows what to do with it because He knows its purpose.

In all of this, we have to look beyond the malady, beyond the sometimes gruelling treatment process, and see the Ark going ahead of us and parting the way. He is in the midst of these troubled waters too.

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