My Year of Cancer

At a recent gathering of Friends, the discussion leader asked us each to describe a joy we had brought with us to the gathering. When my turn came, I gave what I felt was a Spirit-given message as much as an answer to the question: "I am held in this life by the power of love alone."

I believe this statement to be absolutely true. At the time I spoke this message, I was nearing the end of nine months of aggressive medical treatment for a very aggressive cancer. I was skinny from radical surgery that rearranged my digestive system with fewer parts, and I was hairless from chemotherapy. The five-year survival rate for the cancer I had is 16 percent; I am now ten months post-diagnosis, cancer free, and reclaiming my life. I think that I will remain cancer free. In any case, I know with certainty that I will live as long as I need to.

I believe now that God had been preparing me for my year of cancer for some time. Several years ago, I came to a resolve to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of religious thought and practice, and I began reading and wrestling with the Bible. I have found my attention focused on the Gospels and have found myself fascinated by the stories of miraculous healing. My thinking held then that the miracles attributed to Jesus aren’t really important; they might be legends added to the story of Jesus to enhance peoples’ willingness to believe in him, and it would not change the substance of his message in any way. Still, I found myself believing—or at least suspecting—that these accounts were true, and that faith and healing are connected.

During that time, I was harassed by frequent migraines. I was taking strong medication to head off or end a migraine about six times a month. I prayed for an end to my migraines, and I tried to make myself believe it would happen. It didn’t. But I did find myself believing, for no particular reason, that a time could and would come when my faith would be sufficient to heal me of this ailment. I began praying to learn true faith. And for reasons I cannot remember, I quickly added two more spiritual gifts to my request: to learn to truly love, and to learn to truly pray.

A few months after this, I began to have difficulty swallowing, and I began to have food get stuck in my chest before it reached my stomach. Although my doctor never mentioned cancer as a possible cause of this, it was the first thing that came to my mind, and the idea never left me—even after I consulted a gastroenterologist who assured me that I couldn’t possibly have esophageal cancer because I looked too healthy and hadn’t lost weight. But I believed that I had this cancer and did some research. I learned that adenocarcinoma of the lower esophagus is increasing in incidence more rapidly than any other cancer and is becoming increasingly prevalent in middle-aged men, which is my demographic. I read articles about this cancer that referred to it as "dreaded" or "terrible." I learned that it is treated very aggressively and the treatments are debilitating and life-changing. I learned that in the previous year, just over 14,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with this cancer, and just under 14,000 died of it. I stopped reading and hoped that my doctors were right. They were wrong.

I have since asked my family doctor if she had thought all along that I might have cancer, but just wasn’t saying so. She said that she really didn’t think so, but thought it was important enough and just possible enough that we had better find out. The gastroenterologist said that by referring me to him quickly, she had given me a good shot at surviving. He also said that when he did the endoscopy that found the cancer, he didn’t see anything that he thought could be malignant. There was just a small lesion in my esophagus that he almost ignored, but at the last minute, on an impulse, he took a biopsy specimen. (The Lord works in mysterious ways.) About three weeks later, a surgeon performed a more advanced endoscopy procedure to stage the cancer, and by that time, the little lesion had grown to a puffy swelling that blocked half the width of my esophagus.

When I was told that I had cancer, my first thought was that I should have been more careful about what I prayed for because this was not what I had in mind when I asked to learn true faith and true prayer—but it looked like school was now in session.

Of course, I didn’t really believe that God gave me cancer as a learning tool, but the ironic connection impressed me at the time. It has taken me all these months to understand that I saw the connection backwards, like an image inverted in a mirror. God knew from years earlier that I was developing cancer, and God saw that I could be spiritually prepared to better endure my misfortune and even draw some benefit from it. And so God led me to prepare for what lay ahead.

The first few days after learning I had cancer were confusing. I couldn’t figure out what to pray for or how to pray. If I prayed to live, I felt it would be faithless—a repudiation of Jesus’ faith when he prayed at Gethsemane, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as You will" (Matthew 26:39). But I wasn’t feeling that accepting; I really did want to live.

I endured this confusion for three days. On the third night after my diagnosis, I couldn’t sleep. I was terrified that I would endure months of painful, debilitating, humiliating medical treatments, only to die anyway. I spent the night praying and working through my confusion.

I came to understand clearly that I wanted to live. If God willed differently, I would have to accept it, but it was important enough to me to tell God quite clearly what I wanted; so I did. That done, I realized that God had just been waiting for me to make up my mind, that God had no particular will to impose on me, and it wasn’t God’s will that mattered, but mine. I felt a need to explain myself, to tell God why I should live, why I should be the exception and survive this cancer. So I did—at length. I recounted all of the good work that I do, all of the people who depend on me in some way, all of the people who love me. But it wasn’t right, I knew I hadn’t explained it quite right yet, and I could not stop trying to justify my life. When I didn’t know what else to say, I said just this. I want to live because I love and I have more loving to do in this world.

My fear disappeared, and I was able to sleep for an hour until dawn. I have not known fear since.

I have had chemotherapy and radiation together. I have had two major surgeries that kept me in the hospital for almost a month and complications that sent me to intensive care. I was fed intravenously for a month, and then I spent another four months on chemotherapy. What I have never had is a feeling that I was suffering.

I have felt the love of my wife and grown children and of our extended family. I have felt the love of friends and Friends, and I have been loved by strangers. I have felt God’s love. And I have loved them all back. I look back over this time, and there are times when I realize, "Wow, I was really, really sick then," or, "I was in a lot of pain then." But I don’t remember suffering. As I went through my final months of chemotherapy, my side effects actually decreased, going from manageable to negligible, when they are supposed to increase over time.

Oh, and I almost forgot. I haven’t had a single migraine in all this time. That’s kind of weird, isn’t it? That’s the kind of thing you ought to notice—going from six migraines a month for years, to no migraines in more than ten months of stress and life-disruption, like someone flipped a switch from on to off.

I have tried to understand this change. My first thought was that it represents more a promise than a gift, that I was to understand that God can and does heal our bodies when the time is right, and God will restore my health.

But I don’t think that’s it. I now see what I think of as "the miracle of the migraines" in two ways that are different, but not exclusive. The first is as an answer to a very common prayer that I have offered from time to time: "I do believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). That is, this small miracle was help for my persistent unbelief, to deepen my faith for the trials to come. The second way of seeing this is that I was changed by my prayer that sleepless night and had finally achieved sufficient faith for this small miracle to occur.

I think, however, it is a little more complicated than this, because I don’t think that my level of faith took a leap. What changed dramatically overnight was my understanding of the purpose of our lives. They have only one purpose, and that is to love.

The good works we do are important for their own sake, and more so as products of love, but all of this is still secondary to the one great purpose of our lives: to love. I believe that the clarity I achieved on that one question is what healed me of migraines, and, at the very least, beat back the cancer for a time—perhaps cured it. I now know that the only reason I exist is to love, and the real reason I want to continue living in this world is that I have more loving to do in this life.

I also know two corollaries to this great principle. The first is that faith and love are either the same thing or so close to the same thing that I cannot distinguish between them. Prayer brings us to faith, and faith brings love. This is why I was led to seek these three gifts together.

The second corollary is that love is the most powerful force there is. I have seen it at work before and marveled at its power to change the world; it is love that moves mountains when our faith blossoms into love. I now understand that it is love alone that ties me to this life; love is the force through which God created the universe, and love is the only thing that God wills and the only law we must obey to achieve paradise.

Paradise: that is something else I have learned a little about in this year of cancer. I’m not referring to the life to come. I have no doubt that there is yet another life to follow this one, and that every aspect of that life is grounded in love, but that is not the paradise I am talking about. I am talking about this life.

As far back as the Hebrew prophets, our spiritual teachers have envisioned a world to come that would be transformed into paradise by universal acceptance of God’s sovereignty. Isaiah wrote very clearly of a time when all the world would accept the sovereignty of God. Not only will we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, but the leopard will lie down with the young goat and the lion will eat straw, like the ox. "They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).

Isaiah’s image of this world to come, this Kingdom of God, this Peaceable Kingdom, is so compelling that the 19th-century Quaker artist, Edward Hicks, painted The Peaceable Kingdom again and again over many years. But what has struck me about this vision most recently is how much it looks like Eden.

The earliest spiritual storytellers in our tradition understood that God’s original intention for us was not suffering, but paradise. Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom to come was present in God’s mind, and was, in fact, God’s will when creating us. Only our insistence on hiding ourselves from God (as Adam and Eve did) causes us to suffer in this life.

Love transforms suffering into joy—I know this experimentally; I have lived it. I believe that when we all learn to love fully, love will transform our world, and the diseases and misfortunes that cause suffering in a world deficient in love will, themselves, cease to exist. Hallowed will be God’s name, God’s Kingdom will be established, and God’s will shall be done, on Earth as in Heaven.

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God a lot. He told his disciples, "Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power" (Mark 9:1). But those men are long dead, and the Kingdom of God seems as far as ever. Was Jesus wrong?

I don’t think so. Jesus also said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!‘ for behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst" (Luke 17:20-21).

When Jesus said these things, his listeners included John, Peter, and James. These men have left us books and letters written much later in their lives. Can anyone who has read these texts doubt that these men had seen God’s Kingdom come with power; that they were, in fact, living in the Kingdom at the times they wrote, because their beautiful words of faith were grounded in and infused with love?

Prayer brings faith. Faith fills us with love. Love transforms our lives. Our new lives transform the world. It’s the end of the world—as we have known it. It’s the coming of the world as God planned it, the Kingdom of God. It is coming with power.

Lord, teach us to pray.

Paul Hamell

Paul Hamell is a member and current co-clerk of Ridgewood (N.J.) Meeting. He is a retired police lieutenant and a volunteer emergency medical technician. He is currently working on his second novel while searching for a publisher for his first one.