I’m growing plants in my back yard and was delighted yesterday when I spotted a hummingbird that had found a new home amidst the blossoms that are abounding there. She was flitting from one flower to another, a spectacular sight, those little wings beating into a blur, and the entire little body sliding sideways or up and down to a new flower. She sure looked happy– and free.
Speaking of freedom, I just returned from chemo, number fourteen since it started in September, after the first line of defense failed. It has become a ritual of sorts, and I’ve met the nicest people at Stanford. There are the receptionists, physicians, nurses, phlebotomists, radiation techs, physician assistants, janitors, the Mexican-American women in the snack shop, and the guys who oversee the parking. It’s odd how one can get “hooked” on the prospect of another visit, because each visit is so pleasant, even when the news isn’t optimal. These are good people, and I don’t know how they manage to work in an environment where they are helping others who are going through various phases of cancer treatment, many, like myself, facing a situation that is not considered curable. They have far less breathing room in their lives than I enjoy. Yet they are there for us. I am deeply grateful for these special people. They somehow help me feel free.
And then there are the other patients: people of every stripe, all quietly going through their own journeys, and in some cases, real ordeals, yearning to be free again as they struggle to accept what the heathy normally dread. I understand what they’re going through, because I have been going through it as well.
One quickly learns that each cancer is different, and that we patients are very different from one another Lung cancer is not a single disease; it is a congeries of cancers that originate in or reach the lungs. But each lung cancer patient has one thing in common: When people learn that someone has lung cancer, the inevitable question they ask is whether the patient was a smoker. There is an instant (and somewhat understandable) desire to find a cause, and smoking seems the most likely. The fact is that I did smoke occasionally in my late twenties and early thirties. I engaged in several other commonplace vices, too! But, in my case, as in the case of so many others, smoking is not the cause. (Even if it were, I would not want to assign tacit guilt to anyone whose cancer was caused by smoking; there is often a moral judgment that creeps into that kind of search for a cause. We see it in relation to sexually-transmitted diseases, too, a tendency I wrote about in relation to AIDS). The cause of my cancer is a rare mutation in an EGFR (growth factor) gene, causing some cells to multiply rapidly. EGFR mutations occur in only about 20% of people who contract adenocarcinoma (a much higher rate among Asians, especially Asian females), and my particular mutation occurs only among 2% of the 20%. So it is rare, and trickier to treat than some more common forms of the disease.
Somehow, knowing just that much is freeing, because, unlike linking the disease to a single cause, such as smoking, which would lend a false sense of certainty to it all (and to what end?), it cannot be traced to any cause, other than the spontaneity of a gene mutation that could have occurred when I was a child. And what causes that mutation is unknown. It is the result of being a part of nature, and within the mystery of God’s providence, strange things happen within the created order, including the disorder caused by of mutations. Other mutations can be beneficial and lend to what we recognize as order. And all that is part of the gift of existing at all. I don’t mind it. The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:25–14, 34a) mean more to me now than ever:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.