The numbers game

There are some people who say their battle with cancer is a gift from God. I’m not there yet – although having walked beside others who have gone down this road before me – I expect that eventually I too will get there.

For now, if there were any way I can get us off the cancer road, I would do it. But there’s no off-ramp on this highway; we’re in it for the ride, like it or not.

It’s only been six short months since we heard those terrible words, “the lump is cancer,” and we’re still learning what that means. It was something that happened to other people, not us. We were not a cancer family – and now we are. What just happened?

We are doing it, and although I think we’re doing it pretty well, calling it a gift doesn’t work for me yet. But there is time for that.

In the meantime, I’m realizing something I never really understood before: life is a numbers game.

And for those who care, some of the game’s numbers are easy to find (www.statscan.ca).

In Canada, for example, 27 percent of us will die of cancer; 26 percent of us will die of heart disease; 4 percent of us will die of unintentional injuries; 0.9 percent of us will die of diseases of the liver; and so on.

However, until those numbers are handed to you personally, until they have the urgency that the word “cancer” gives them, you don’t give them much thought.

When cancer enters your life the game becomes instantly visible. You are handed a chart with five-year survival percentages. Another chart shows the statistics of your various options. Chemo improves your odds, radiation improves those odds, and with continuing treatment the odds improve again. There are very good reasons to follow the recommended program even if it is rather severe.

As we were leaving the B.C. Cancer Agency after our first visit, we were asked for permission to use the medical history of our journey for research. The researcher was polite and careful, but without intending to she had reminded me: you are now a number.

Even as an analytical person, something in me reacted to those brazen statistics. I was waiting to hear something like, “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of everything and life will go back to normal before you know it.”

Instead, what the statistics told us was that the uncertainty of life is measurable and, even more disturbing, it is unavoidable. There are no guarantees.

But we want guarantees. We’ll pay extra for them. We want cures not probabilities. We want to be assured that if the right things are done this problem will go away and never come back. Of all the things we heard, that assurance was conspicuously absent.

As people of the Book, this should be no surprise. It is stated unambiguously and with emphasis: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James 4:13-14.

Not very pastoral, much like those Cancer Agency statistics, but incontrovertible.

In the early years of our ministry, I was sitting with a man who had only a few months to live. As I was about to leave I offered a thought: “Of course none of us know if we will see another day.”

I still remember his look and reply. “But I am quite certain I won’t see springtime and I am quite certain you will.”

There are true things you shouldn’t say before you understand them. I never said that again.

But it is still true, and now I am wrestling with it in a new way – not to comfort others but to help me understand where God is in the numbers game, a game I never overtly played before.

And where is God? Until I understood this I also didn’t truly comprehend the answer. It is because life is a numbers game that God’s greatest treasures are meaningful. Faith, hope, and the peace that passes understanding are gifts that we need more than ever before. These gifts only make sense when you understand that life is a numbers game.

I am not yet ready to call cancer a blessing, but I think I’m beginning to understand why one might.

James Toews is pastor at NeighbourhoodChurch, Nanaimo, B.C. Janet Toews was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 30, had surgery on April 18, and began chemo June 16. We are blessed to live in a country that gives us the best numbers you could ask for. We are even more blessed to serve the God of all hope and to live in his household. 

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