I have cancer
The Aspen Beat
Those words were spoken by an atheistic writer and thinker I admire, Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens developed cancer a few years ago. People wondered if his terminal illness would shake his disbelief in God. Proselytizers expected a deathbed conversion. In a foxhole, the saying goes, everyone gets religion.
But they didn’t know Hitchens. His unfaith was strong. He wrote about it during his treatment and decline, and he never lost it till the day he died. After that, we don’t know.
As for me, well, I figured the docs’ initial suspicion was B.S. I saw that the concentration of a cancer marker in my routine blood test was a little high, but I figured that was for the same reason that my hairline is a little high, my skis are a little fat, my shirtsleeves are a little tight and my boxers are a little crowded: I’m just more than your average dude.
I was wrong.
After you get on their cancer radar with a suspicious blood test, the docs do a biopsy, where they remove parts of your body. (They don’t put them back either.) Then they look at the removed parts under a microscope. Cancer cells look different.
My biopsy was negative. A negative cancer biopsy is a positive thing. It means they failed in their search for cancer.
Ha! They lost and I won.
But then they demanded a re-do, targeting the suspicious spots shown in a MRI. That time, they won and I lost. They found intermediate-stage cancer.
As a former lawyer, this struck me as unfair and arguably illegal. It was like double jeopardy. The prosecution doesn’t get to keep retrying the defendant until they win a guilty verdict, right?
In the cancer game, there’s no rule against double jeopardy. If you win nine biopsies and lose the 10th, you lose.
I’m no Christopher Hitchens. He bravely disbelieved, but I’ve surrendered to belief. He had boundless unfaith, but I am of little unfaith. He was courageous enough to walk alone, but I need company.
So I face hard questions that Hitchens never did: Why do I have cancer? Will my belief, my faith and my walk survive it? Will I?
In a small room in a big cancer hospital a week ago, a nurse prepared to give me an EKG to make sure my heart was right. We made awkward small talk. She was not a skier.
She asked me to take off my shirt. As she attached sticky electrodes to my chest, she noticed the simple silver cross I always wear under my shirt on a nylon string around my neck. The cross has seen a lot.
“Do you have any questions?” she asked as I laid flat on my back and she turned on the machine. The words were perfunctory but the tone of her voice had changed.
“None that you could answer,” I replied with a grin.
She cocked her head. “Try me.”
I paused. My grin grew grim as I involuntarily asked, “Will I be all right?”
We starred at one another, both of us surprised by my question hanging in the air. “Yes, you’ll be all right,” she replied. “God is with you.”
Her voice hardened against my petulance. “Are you asking me if you’ll live or die? Is that your question? Because that’s a different question.”
Lying on the examination table, I sulked. She leaned over me, held both my shoulders and looked in my eyes.
“Nobody knows the answer to that question. We’re not supposed to know. That’s God’s business. All we can do is to trust him to keep us here when he wants us here, and to bring us home when he wants us home.”
I sighed, remembering the sad and sick old men in the waiting room down the hall. “Maybe I’ll go home early.” I made a gun with my finger, pointed it at my head, and pulled the trigger.
Still holding my shoulders, she moved within inches of my face.
“I treat dying patients every day. This world is not heaven. This world is sometimes hard. But God put you here. You can’t just quit God’s work and go home early. You know that.”
She resumed operating the machine as she wiped a tear from her face.
“Yes,” I said. “I know. I do know.”
Then we were done. She removed the electrodes, and helped me off my back and onto my feet.
She smiled. “Your heart is fine.”
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