Reflections on cancer

Dr. Peter Gruener is a retired oncologist living here in Montreal, and he now volunteers with the pastoral department at the Lakeshore General Hospital. He once told me something which has remained with me: "Cancer is the body's attempt to become immortal." You see, all normal body cells have a built-in kill switch: they do divide in order to replace themselves, but they also die to make room for the new cells. Cancer cells, however, don't have this built-in regulation, and simply never die unless killed by an outside force. They possess, in a sense, the kind of immortality that St. Augustine said Adam and Eve had: possunt non mori, the possibility to not die.

The effect, however, is devastating: in their "quest for life" they drain it from the rest of the body, acting as parasites on the system, tending it towards death. Cancer is irony: in the end the cancer dies too, as the tumours cut off some vital system, or they simply drain the body of strength.

"Cancer is the body's attempt to become immortal." It does make me think of Adam and Eve: perhaps the declaration of the sentence of death by God on Adam and Eve is not purely a declaration of punishment, but something necessary for the health of the overall "body of humanity". Imagine a world full of immortal evil human beings: they truly would be a cancer on creation. In effect, God's declaration is not "If you eat the fruit, I will kill you", but rather "If you eat the fruit, I will have to let you die." It is a judgement, in fact, of mercy, for the human race as a whole.

As human beings we naturally fear death and reject it, despite how it looms. Are we willing, however, to admit that in our present state death is necessary for the sake of the greater spiritual and moral health of the body of humanity? Are we ready to thank God for his "sentence of death" upon humanity, admitting that without it, in our fallen natures, we would become cancer?

I pray that the Lord Jesus may come soon, and I am Waiting in Joyful Hope for that Day. When he does, though, because he will be bringing the gift of Resurrection and eternal life, it will necessarily involve a Judgement, in which the "cancers" are removed from the Body. In the meantime, am I willing to face the possibility of my own death in solidarity with those who share my fallen human condition?