As a pastor I have accompanied many people on the journey of cancer. I have seen a variety of outcomes; the cancer went away never to return; the cancer went away and came back; the cancer could not be treated except in a way described as "palliative".
I came to the conclusion that cancer was simply a nasty disease and that while we can prevent some cancers and perhaps cure others, there is a randomness that I simply could not understand.
Turns out that in the majority of many cancers, that’s exactly the case. It’s random. And it’s the luck of the draw.
In a groundbreaking biostatistical study of 31 different types of cancers, biostatisticians at Johns Hopkins University have found that two thirds of cancer occurrences can be explained by random DNS changes at the cellular level. In other words, the study says, bad luck.
We have to understand that our bodies are marvellous creations. There is a constant process of cell division and replication going on all the time within us. Our bodies are constantly being renewed, thousands of cells at a time, millions of times a day.
In this process of cellular replication, the building blocks of life, our DNA, ir replicated over and over again. And the DNA replicates, errors creep in. Most of the errors are harmless. They do nothing and cause us no problems. But when they do go wrong and the cells change, cancer can be the result.
That doesn’t excuse people from making bad lifestyle choices. Some cancers can be caused by random DNA changes amplified by risk factors such as smoking, alcohol abuse, exposure to the sun and environmental factors and heredity.
I was always intrigued that some of the people who worked in the nuclear environment of the early Cold War suffered no ill effects from their radiation exposure. According to this study, it would appear that their lack of side effects, including cancer, was probably due to good luck. They survived because their ongoing cellular changes to their DNA did them no harm.
They were lucky.
Others were not.
I think this study has a huge bearing on our understanding of cancer and how we approach the disease.
First, it doesn’t mean we should not take care of ourselves, live healthy lifestyles and reduce exposure factors. Reduction in alcohol consumption, exposure to sun and a well-balanced diet are all good places to start. We can reduce the risk of cancer as much as we can.
Early detection becomes more important. The study says clearly that this is where they hope medicine will focus its energies. And we have a responsibility to work with our medical professionals to monitor ourselves and keep ourselves healthy.
But we also have to recognize there are some things which are beyond our control. As my kids say, "Stuff happens".
That means we have to recognize that we have to learn to live with illness and realize we won’t live forever.
That does not mean we will live dull, boring and ineffective lives. It means that we learn to live with a medical disease.
The positive side is that cancer is not always a death sentence. With treatment, remission happens. Sometimes it is a once in a lifetime occurrence, never to come back again.
Overall, there is still hope.
Some with say this study means we are helpless to stop cancer.
It means we have to be more careful of ourselves and recognize that we are mortal, human. We have to take care of ourselves, fragile creations that we are. And that’s not a bad thing.
Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.