Dealing With End of Life, Cancer, Human Suffering: A Reflection

This post is a change of pace—I need that now and again. And in fact as I’ve said in suicidethe past, I will be trying to post on the topic of this post every now and then; I find it therapeutic, and hopefully, at some level, it serves edifying to someone out there.

As most of you know I was diagnosed with a rare cancer back in late 2009 called Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor sarcoma (you can read about its bleakness here … I don’t like to read about it because it is actually pretty scary!). After really rough chemo and surgery over a period of many months, by God’s grace, I have been cancer free since May 6th, 2010 (the day of my surgery).

Last night on Netflix streaming, I watched two Frontline documentaries; the first was called Suicide Tourist (that’s uplifting!), and it followed the trek of a guy who was diagnosed with ALS—he eventually ended his life in Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal (it actually shows him do it). The second documentary was called Facing Deaththis one followed the stories of a few terminal patients (mostly cancer); and it dealt with the dilemmas presented of how much treatment is too much, how long should people be artificially ventilated and kept alive—it looked at these dilemmas through the eyes of the doctors, the patients, and the patient’s immediate family members.

As I watched these documentaries it brought back a flood of memories for me; memories that are still somewhat raw, and too close for comfort. But what these documentaries also prompted for me was how hopeless death and suffering actually are (and I mean for real!) without the hope of Jesus Christ and resurrection. The guy who committed suicide, openly rejected a belief in God, and even a belief in any notion of an after-life (which we Christians, as NT Wright would term it, believe in life after this instantiation of life … there is a continuity). All that his wife and those present at his suicide could say as he sipped his cup of death through a straw was: “Safe journey!” “We’ll see you again some time” (with a tone of wishfulness). Similarly, there was this same kind of manufactured hope among the patients and their families in the other documentary “Facing Death.” And as I recall all too well, as I sat in the chemo clinic receiving my own elixir of poison drips (through IV), this same kind of tone of wishful self-manufactured hope was present all around; and it was totally oppressing and depressing. I can remember some times leaving the clinic, or hospital, and being exhausted, not just from the chemo, but emotionally exhausted and taxed because of the conversations I had with other cancer patients seated around me. I would always try to bring Jesus into the discussions, but the majority of the time people didn’t want to talk about that, or even acknowledge I had just said something about the hope of resurrection life (there was one guy, though, named Jay, who had lung cancer [not a smoker], he was and is a Christian; and he said “our favorite holiday, now, Bobby, is Easter; isn’t it?” … he said this with his lovely wife and three beautiful college age daughters standing around us with tears streaming down their faces).

I simply wanted to underscore something that we all know already. That without Jesus Christ there is no victory or hope over death. We can kick and scream all we want; we can try to muster up every last ounce of dignified sense of hope that we want, but at the last, if we don’t have a hope who is real and external to ourselves (like Jesus Christ!), then our hopes are really only dashed on the reality that our own self-possessed lives cannot fathom or give into. Even faced with the most dismal circumstances—our personal mortality—our love of self can be stronger; as Jesus said, ‘We love the darkness rather than the light’.

Cancer is real, but Jesus is more real. Human suffering is complex, overwhelming; but Jesus Christ is more complex and more overwhelming. My heart is for people who suffer like this, I want them to know that there is a hope, and his name is Jesus Christ! And even if they don’t want to give in to that hope, it is okay, because Jesus has given into that hope (and is that hope) for them. All they have to do, like Jesus did for them in his Spirit garbed humanity, is say Yes!

6 thoughts on “Dealing With End of Life, Cancer, Human Suffering: A Reflection

  1. Excellent, excellent insights, Bobby! I sense your real pain & vulnerability in this post, which makes your real faith & proclamation of the Good News all the more powerful (& credible). God bless you. Eric


  2. Fr Kimel,

    Thank you!


    Glad this post was encouraging!


    Thank you; good to hear from you! I know, speaking academics or “theologically” all the time can give the appearance, I think, at points, of being dispassionate, stoic, or impersonal. I guess there are just different modes that we operate from, but these modes stand in implicating relation one to the other; i.e. my theology informed the way I interpreted (and interpret) what my cancer was all about (at least in some ways).


  3. You’ve got a pretty good balance. Even when you disagree with someone, I’ve found you to be compassionate & judicious. When you write on issues relating to death, dying or cancer, you always have my complete attention. It’s like if Joni Eareckson Tada speaks on suffering or disability – I stop in my tracks & listen. In a world that values “celebrities” it’s nice to have some “heros” of the faith to learn from.


  4. Eric,

    You are way too kind, brother; thank you! I am very humbled. My balance is sometimes superseded by the imbalance of my “flesh,” but my heart is to be gracious and not mean.

    I listen up to Joni too :-)!


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