I have been taking a particularly fascinating (and challenging!) course this semester called “The Epic of Creation: Scientific, Biblical, and Theological Perspectives on Our Origins.” While many of our class sessions have been (to my mind) thickly scientific and technical and rather over my head, last Monday, we had a deeply engaging conversation about theological and pastoral perspectives on cancer as an evolutionary phenomenon. Given my family history of cancer — most notably, my mother’s death from breast cancer in 1994 — this is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. I rushed home after class to write my reflections about all that we had discussed, and after re-reading what I wrote, I decided to share some of it here. I hope it’s meaningful for others as it is for me.
We have spoken a great deal in class about evolution and how it works on both macro and micro levels. Tonight, we spoke about how cancer is an evolutionary phenomenon that sometimes results from cellular evolution. Essentially, the same processes that enable life to continue — an open creation that allows for adaptation and change — are what also enable cancer to happen. Random mutations occur in certain cells, which survive and are passed down to subsequent generations of cells; when this begins to spread and ignore orders from the body to die, choosing instead to pretend to be almost like another organ, it becomes cancerous. Cancer is not so much an invasion of the body as it is a civil war — it is literally part of us gone awry through cellular evolution. It is catastrophically successful evolution on a miniature scale, within the universe of a human body. And while certain things may increase our odds of getting cancer, ultimately it is a matter of chance. According to the visiting professor who gave the lecture, cancer is “statistically inevitable” in this system of life (though it is essentially random as far as when and where it happens), because the evolutionary processes that allow it to happen are the same ones that allow our cells to learn and adapt and regenerate and continue living.
The way I could best understand this was to liken it to natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanoes, which I find a little easier to wrap my head around. The earth needs the movement of the tectonic plates to keep on earthing, that is, to continue maintaining the conditions necessary for life. But the exact same movement that enables life also enables massive destruction. Just like with cancer, the conditions necessary for life leave the door open for catastrophe. It also strikes me that this is not unlike the gift of free will. God gave humans free will to be used for the good, but the same power that enables us — meaningfully — to choose the good and to choose relationship with God and others, also enables us to choose things that are evil, even unspeakable.
One possible reaction to this reality is to sigh and resign ourselves to believing that this is the way things will always be, that we will never be free from cancer because the biological conditions necessary for life will always leave that door open. Another possible reaction is to wait and hope for a different world, a perfect world, in which God somehow does things so dramatically differently that biology works in such a way as to keep cancer from happening.
However, I don’t agree with either of these reactions; both are incomplete. In response to the first one, things not only can change, they have changed. They are changing all the time. Cancer research and treatments have progressed tremendously in the 23 years since my mom died. We can’t stop the biological processes that create cancer, but maybe we can find a cure. As for the second reaction, that’s just escapism, likely grown out of the thread of dualistic neoplatonic thought that runs rampant throughout the church. God created us and our bodies for this earth. If God ultimately intended for creation to be fundamentally different, God would have just done so in the first place. This type of reaction renders creation and our participation in it completely meaningless.
Instead, it is perhaps more accurate to say that we are participants in the ongoing perfection of creation. [scribbled in the margins: “crap, did I just become a process theologian?”] This gives us a meaningful part in a much broader narrative, and it calls us to action, inviting us to be co-creators with God of a “new heaven and a new earth.” And at the same time, it still gives place to the weight of grief and death that plagues creation and humans in particular. While it points to the future hope of creation, when the kingdom has come and death is no more and we are reunited with our loved ones, it also points us to the hope of a God who is beside us in the trenches, in the midst of darkness and death. God is urging creation on, “luring” it toward the future, as our professor often says, but God is at the same time profoundly conscious of the experience of every last created thing all along the way — including us. God accompanies us in both joy and grief. God is grieved by our pain and our loss.
I have hope for the future kingdom, hope for life unending with God. But I know that that future is still far off — and we still have so much to learn. In the meantime, death is still an ever-present reality. And I know that I must make peace with my own mortality. I must accept my relatively high risk for cancer, and the certainty, regardless, that one day I will die. But I have a firmly rooted faith that God is always with me, loving and supporting me, calling me to use the gifts I have been given to take part in the renewing of creation, comforting and keeping me in life and in death. And I have faith that my God is a God of resurrection and life, and that death will not have the last word.
Surely I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Amen! Alleluia!