The World Health Organization reported last week that Diesel engine fumes may cause cancer—the latest educated guess at what kills over 7.5 million people each year. While I've always paid attention to findings such as this one, these days I have even more reason to.
Last fall, my husband, Jonathan, was a healthy 28-year-old man who seemingly had heartburn from the stress of a new baby. He ran half-marathons, played basketball twice weekly, and ate appropriate portions of locally grown produce, whole grains, lean meats, and fish.
To say we were shocked by Jonathan's cancer diagnosis would be, to put it lightly, an understatement. Turns out, the heartburn was rather a mass in his lower neck and upper chest.
When something like cancer happens, onlookers want answers. "How could this happen to you? You're so young and healthy," they said. The question is one that at times we couldn't help asking ourselves.
At Jonathan's first doctor's appointment his surgeon casually mentioned the high rate of lymphoma in our area and that agricultural pesticides could be a possible cause. I went home from the meeting and began Google searching like a crazy person. I wanted to find something—anything —that would help us understand why cancer had picked his body. I needed to know whether we could have prevented this mass, this cancer, from happening.
I came to no conclusions—about pesticides or any other causes for the cancer. And despite his treatment being complete and his body now free of cancer, it's difficult to still think about the cause. Just a few days ago I found myself panicked as I went to heat the baby's bottle. Plastic or glass? Tap water or purified water? Organic formula or Target brand? And, are we even wearing the right kind of sunscreen?! If cancer has visited our house once, what's to say it won't return? Surely I can prevent its appearance by making smart decisions.
Analyzing and worrying about what causes cancer is not what I'd like to be doing right now. But regardless of how much I try not to question what we could have done differently, it's hard to escape the barrage of media attention around cancer's potential causes.
In the past month alone, three separate studies reported different conclusions about why cancer exists. Are viruses, parasites, or infections the culprit? Or is it allergies and asbestos? Perhaps sleep apnea, or spray tans are to blame? And if cancer is caused by any, or all, of these nearly unavoidable factors (save spray tans), why do some people fall victim while others who have just as much exposure don't? It's enough to drive even the sanest person to become a hypochondriac, which doesn't help the situation at all.
Because when you and I begin to believe that cancer (or any other disease for that matter) can be completely avoided by making all the right day-to-day choices, two things happen:
We begin to unconsciously live in a perpetual state of fear, and we start to think we have power over our final outcome: life or death. The first result is overwhelming; the second is inconsistent with our beliefs about God's sovereignty.
Joan Didion, in her book The Year of Magical Thinking, said it best: "I realize how open we are to the persistent message that we can avert death. And to its punitive correlative, the message that if death catches us we have only ourselves to blame." But when we believe that death is something that happens to people who don't take enough care to avoid it, we forget that God is the maker of life and the only authority over death.
Despite hundreds of studies hypothesizing cancer's causes and ways to avoid it, I believe as Christians we can only rest on one true fact: we are all going to die, and to do so is gain.
And while I am not advocating picking up a cigarette habit or stopping monthly self-breast exams, I am suggesting we live a life pursuing Christ rather than running from cancer.
What does this look like on a daily basis? To start, it means clinging to scripture's promise that "the righteous shall not be shaken…they will not fear bad news, but instead trust in the Lord" (Psalm 112:6,7).
We may reside in a broken, polluted world where cancer seems to grow steadily, however, this disease is not winning. Christ, the Risen Lord, has already won. We get to partake in a life that does not end when our bodies fail.
"In a world where opinions rise to a place where only truth should be, and every voice seems to get an equal hearing, in the constant cacophony of ten thousand contradictory voices, it is a wonderful and amazing thing to be able to say with rest and confidence, The Lord is my Light!"—Paul Tripp
Although it can be tempting to allow our peace and anxiety to ebb and flow based on the latest research findings, I am in a place of new resolve not to. Lord, assist me in making the best choices for my family, I will say. And, Lord, help me remember that the final chapter of my story has already been written.
Lesley Sebek Miller, a Westmont College graduate, lives in Sacramento, California. Her work has appeared in Relevant Magazine. She blogs at http://barefooton45th.com.
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