Did you know that based on population data, I only have a 20% chance of being alive this time next year?
The odds are long, but then they always have been, and so far, I sit way out on the bell shaped curve, probably 2-3 standard deviations out, in terms of my survival. But when you are confronted with a statistic like that, how should we respond?
Do we give up hope, wait for the inevitable?
Do we plan for the inevitable and go sit on a beach somewhere?
Or do we just ignore that statistic and pretend it doesn’t exist?
Many people try to sell me hope on this journey, and the sales pitch comes in many forms which can probably be put into two broad categories. First, is the alternative medicine category; “I have the cure for you”; “you should try this diet”; “I know someone in India who can cure you” characterizes this response. This versions of hope is sold to me on the premise that there is an undiscovered cure for cancer that people know about, but the medical establishment has turned a blind eye to. The second category is more a faith based one. It is often characterized by comments like “Claim the healing and God will heal you”; “if you have faith, God will heal you”; and sometimes, just as “God will heal you”.
“I think hope is sometimes a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. We live in hope for one thing because the reality of the alternative scares us too much. In actual fact we are living in fear… or denial.”
This was a Facebook status I mused upon recently and the premise for the third response. What I have discovered is that there are in fact two types of hope. The first of which is characterized by the kind of blind faith that is often sold in the above formats, be that a faith in alternative treatments or a faith in God. This kind of hope has grandiose promises of a life free of suffering. These promises seem to offer a freedom from the life we may think we are stuck with, and a future fantasy that often really only serves as a form of escapism. At the heart of this kind of hope though, is the fear of our reality. Its a belief in the possible because the probable is too hard.
Its thinking we live in hope, but actually living in fear…
It’s a form of denial…
Which is why very often this kind of hope will collapse in the face of suffering, cause disillusionment, and become its antithesis, hopelessness.
This begs the question, what IS hope?
For me, hope is found by acknowledging my reality. It’s embracing the fact that I only have a 20% likelihood of being alive in a year, and knowing that my future will have suffering. It is taking my fears, my anxiety, and the life I find myself in and giving it over to something greater. When I submit my fears, I relinquish the control I try to have over them and I am stripped back to the absolute core of who I am. In the process of that submission hope is birthed…
Acknowledging, and then submitting my reality to God, is the only place I have found hope. Hope that energizes me, hope that motivates me, and hope that what I do in this life, is working towards something far greater than I could ever imagine.
It is by knowing my reality, rather than ignoring it, that the seed of hope grows…
And true hope has powers far greater than fear…. It even conquers death.
I am at peace with my diagnosis and prognosis, yet I have hope. The hope is not necessarily in a cure, or in healing, it’s an intangible hope that permeates everything I touch and every day that I am alive. It’s a hope that is beyond the natural, that is Christ fueled, and allows me to live the life I was meant to, even if it wasn’t the life I had planned.
When hope is born from suffering rather than fear, that is when it becomes real.
Thanks for listening.
As an evidence based guy, and simultaneously a man of faith, I am often at two ends of a spectrum that do not necessarily harmoniously walk hand and hand. One camp takes the skeptics approach, demanding rigorously demonstrated evidence in order to proclaim the truth, the other proclaims the truth at the outset as a manner of faith, where no such evidence is necessary. How do I seemingly reconcile two very different life perspectives? particularly when the outcomes of which have a direct bearing on my life, that is, the knowledge of medicine and disease with respect to my cancer, or the hope that there might be something more beyond the tangible reality of our world.
This is a potentially controversial topic, as people tend to polarise to either end other spectrum, and very rarely find the middle ground. Perhaps, it was never meant to be a spectrum in the first place, but two ends of a piece of string that can be held in each hand. Holding the ideas in tension, constantly evaluating the merits of either, using it to measure up what real life has to offer.
The first camp is the evidence based camp. It requires strict adherence to a set of rules set by science, deemed to be truth by scientific consensus. The latter part of that statement is important. Scientific consensus is not one person claiming something to be true by science, but a collective of thoughts and agreements that have been repeated rigorously, with the same collective outcome. The classic example of non-scientific consensus is the publication of an article in 1998 that claimed vaccines were the cause of Autism [Wakefield et al. The Lancet, Volume 351, Issue 9103, Pages 637 – 641, 28 February 1998]. Consensus never agreed with this, it was the one and only paper with a sample size of 12, that anti-vaccine proponents jumped on. This was despite repeated studies that could not agree with the finding of the original paper. So much so that earlier this year it was retracted from the journal it was published in.
The second camp starts from somewhere else, it begins with an a priori assumption that something bigger exists beyond what can be touched, felt and heard. It claims that before time, God existed, and nothing exists apart from Him (or She, english does not give us a gender neutral pronoun so I will resort to the traditional). It claims that all things are possible, and that the miraculous occurs in day-to-day life, and does not need to be backed up by empirical evidence. This particular camp will often be proponents for a literal 7 day creation, it will also have tendencies for claims such as the inerrancy of the word of God. The premise here being that God is before, during and after, the alpha and the omega, and that all creation cannot exist part from Him.
Two very different camps, two very different ideas about the world. Both of which I have stakes in. So how does that work?
The world that I live in, the medical world, is empirical. People live and they die daily based on whatever ailment afflicts them, and whatever treatment is available to help them. Christians, people of faith, are unfortunately not statistically anymore likely to survive terminal illness than any other sup-population. We live in an empirical world. I have an illness that can be quantified, it can be measured, and it can be treated with the best treatment that is available for it. That treatment has known limitations, known side-effects, and known positive effects. All of which is weighed up when I receive this treatment.
The faith-based world believes in something beyond the empirical. It believes that no matter what happens in this world, there is a greater power that oversees it, that governs it, that gives it purpose, that gives it hope. I believe that HOPE is the distinguishing point that this life view offers over the empirical.
Without Hope, the world as we know it is just a meaningless machine, cogs moving, intertwining, a process that we are stuck in and have very little say in. With Hope there is knowledge and meaning that goes beyond the tangible world.
I live in a world where the empirical definitely reigns, but I also live in a world of hope. Yes, I have terminal cancer, yes the odds of my survival are not good. But with hope, there is meaning in the life that I have left. There is a chance that maybe, just maybe, I will beat the odds, that life will extend another 50 years. Empirically, I don’t see the evidence for it, but through the eyes of Christ, I can see the eternal. I can see the promise of something so much greater in this life, and the life to come.
Again, these two perspectives must be held in tension, God heals, but he doesn’t heal everyone. I believe we do Him a disservice when claiming the miraculous where it doesn’t exist. Christians are good at that. We claim this and that as miracles, yet 10,000 children die every day from starvation. We begin to enter a tricky mine field of what God is capable of and how he works when we begin to claim fortuitous circumstance as miraculous. Miracles happen…. the are just rarer than we believe.
I will always be torn between these two perspectives on life, seemingly incongruent, yet each has a hold on me that I cannot release either one. Perhaps that is the better way, to hold each in tension, to trust, and to acknowledge reality and the suffering that it might entail.
…. and through all of that is to Hope…. and that is what keeps me going.
Thanks for listening.
I’m currently going through a process at the moment of often saying “This time last year..” and then reflecting on what actually was going on at this time last year.
The one year milestone is not necessarily an achievement, but more a moment to stop and reflect on the somewhat unpredictable detour life has taken in such a short 12 months. Having said that, the recent news in my life means that I might actually begin to measure achievements in years, or months for that matter. Either way, The week beginning Sunday the 8th of November 2009, maps back to the week beginning on Sunday 9th of November 2008, a week where everything changed, or began to change, in a direction that cannot be considered for the better.
Sunday = The day where something ‘wasn’t quite right’. After a mammoth meal the night before, my stomach was up to, what at the time, seemed to be a fairly routine grumbling about the quantity of food I ate. I stopped eating, lest I aggravate the belly below, and somewhat disconcertingly, stopped bowel motions, the latter wasn’t intentional.
Tuesday = The day where 3 days of stomach pains began to intensify. Pains would come in waves anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes apart, lasting no longer than 30 -60 seconds long. The day culminated in a nice bout of vomiting in the evening. This was the trigger point for Hannah and I to head to the hospital. Medical alarm bells were beginning to ring in our head, and the fact that we were due to fly out of the country on Friday was also at the back of our minds.
Friday = after a few days of ‘conservative management’ which is medical speak for ‘have some Panadol and lets see what happens’, the pain was significantly worse. Repeat abdominal x-rays showed barn door signs for bowel obstruction. The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine (OHCM) says under the heading ‘Bowel Obstruction’ – “Never let the sun go down on a bowel obstruction”. And so, as the OHCM says, we followed. Surgery was 3 1/2 hours long, and what might have been an atypical presentation of an appendicitis became a full-blown right-sided hemicolectomy.
Thursday = 6 days post op: We got the news that the tumour that had caused the obstruction was indeed an adenocarcinoma of T3N2M1 Histology. Almost as bad as it gets.
Friday (21st Nov) = 7 days post op: Incidentally my 28th birthday, I was discharged.
And so… in that short space of time, in the view of the majority of people, life took a turn for the worse.
I however, prefer to think about it differently. Life didn’t take a turn for the worse, it took a turn down an unexpected route. I am the first to put my hand up and say it certainly didn’t take a turn for the better, but I feel that to say it took a turn for the worse might be a little melodramatic!
There are two reason’s I say this. They are:
- Death is nothing to be feared (although arguably the form death might take could be feared). We all die, it’s an inescapable fact of life. Whether Muslim or Christian, atheist or Buddhist, Caucasian or Asian, we die. How we approach this fact (as with all things in life) will determine how we respond to it. By not fearing it, we empower life, which is the part that comes before death. Many people do not fear death for many reasons. For me, faith in Christ is an integral part of that reason, and it is through my faith that the ‘alive’ part of life becomes empowered.
- Life is actually at its most interesting when there are mountains to climb, challenges to approach, and valleys to be descended (and ascended). The previous year where medicine has been sidelined in my life is proof to this fact. I NEED something to fill my time, I need challenges in my life to overcome, I need to create meaning.
It’s this final point which is pivotal. Life by itself will no doubt, by default, fall into a repeating pattern of routine, which, for all intents and purposes, lacks meaning. Meaning in life is not stumbled upon, that’s an illusion sold to us by Hollywood. Meaning is created. We have the choice to create meaning in our life regardless of what our circumstances are.
I’m dying of cancer.
But I’m choosing to create meaning in that.
Christ enables me to create that meaning; on my own strength I would fail.
Again, the final point is pivotal.
So when I reflect on ‘This time last year’.. I reflect on not why, but how, how I can create meaning. This is why life has only re-routed, instead of taking a turn for the worse.
It’s an interesting route to say the least.
Thanks for Listening.