What’s a Body to Do?
When there are no guarantees
It was midmorning when the call came. Glancing down at my cell phone, I could see the doctor was calling with lab results. “Good morning!” I answered, expecting to hear that everything was fine.
But everything was not fine. “The test results came back ‘suspicious,’ ” I heard him say. “Suspicious”—I could finish the unspoken thought—for cancer.
Cancer was no stranger to our family. My grandmother, grandfather, two uncles, and an aunt, had all received that diagnosis; and all but one of them died from the disease. Was it now my turn?
In 2012 it was estimated that 1,638,910 people in the U.S. would be diagnosed with some form of cancer, and approximately 577,190 Americans were expected to die from cancer that year.1 By the time a person in the United States has reached the age of 70, men face a one in three chance of contracting the deadly disease, and for women the odds are one in four.2
Risk of False Security
Of course, for Seventh-day Adventists the odds are somewhat better. Research has shown that Adventists live on average 10 years longer than the general population, because of our healthy lifestyle of vegetarianism, exercise, rest, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, etc.3 This lifestyle is also known to reduce the risk of various diseases, including cancer.
Unfortunately, these facts can sometimes lead to a false sense of security, tempting us to think that if we just eat right and live healthfully we won’t get any serious disease, especially cancer. Then if we are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, the first question we (or others) often ask is “What did I do wrong?”
Ice Cream and Cancer
Such was the case with Ann,4 who at the age of 79 was facing cancer. Filled with worry and guilt, Ann called her longtime friend Fred Hardinge, a registered dietitian and doctor of public health who serves as an associate director of the Health Ministries Department at the General Conference.
“I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer,” she told Hardinge. “Do you think this was because once in a while I ate a small scoop of ice cream?” Assuring her it was not, Hardinge encouraged Ann to follow her physician’s recommendations. Ann received medical treatment and lived happily to the age of 94.
Does living a healthy lifestyle help? “Absolutely,” says Hardinge, “because it helps to minimize risk. Some people defy the odds, such as lifelong smokers who never get lung cancer, yet there are people who have lived conscientiously and carefully, and still get a life-threatening, deadly disease.” Explaining why this might be, Hardinge adds, “We have to remember we’re living with more than 6,000 years of sin on this earth, and we see the earth groaning under the weight of sin in every area, including disease. Further, we know genetically that the choices of our parents and grandparents—even though they may have lived to the best of their knowledge—may be impacting us and causing suffering today.”
The good news, according to Hardinge, is that through our choices it is possible to reduce the effects of what we inherit. Through the relatively new field of epigenetics,5 researchers have found that we can reverse genetic tendencies, says Hardinge. “It is not a panacea, but it scientifically explains why making good, positive choices can make such a difference in people’s lives.”
No Easy Choices
Sitting in the oncologist’s office, I felt overwhelmed by the choices needing to be made. No choice looked good. The first option was to follow the regimen the medical team recommended, which seemed almost insurmountable—weeks of further testing, complicated presurgical procedures, major surgery followed by weeks of daily injections into my abdomen. Depending on the outcome of the surgery, I then faced the possibility of radiation and/or chemotherapy.
The second option was to choose the route of “natural remedies” for healing. These regimes usually include a strict diet and lifestyle modification. Unlike the medical route, this choice would not involve the dreaded needles, scalpel, drugs, and therapies. Furthermore, I could do it in my own home, at minimal cost.
The third choice included surgery, followed by only natural remedies, hoping that the special diet/lifestyle would capture and kill any remaining cancer cells.
The final option was to simply do nothing, allowing the tumor to grow until it completely took over my body, causing death.
Being a Good Steward
Of course, death was what I was seeking to avoid, for many reasons, including stewardship. We Adventists believe that we are entrusted with various talents, one of which is life itself, and we are to use our talents to glorify God. Furthermore, I knew that our “bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God. . . . You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19, 20).
So the question for me was not just “How can I save my life?” but “Which treatment plan is most likely to bring glory to God and extend my usefulness in serving Him?”
As difficult as they are, choices today certainly look better than they were in the nineteenth century! Treatment for cancer at that time included carbolic acid, arsenic, chromic acid, mercury bichloride, and mercury nitrate—all known poisons today, and ineffective in treating cancer. It was in reference to this type of “drug therapy” that Ellen White wrote, “Practitioners are very much in earnest in using their dangerous concoctions, and I am decidedly opposed to resorting to such things.”6
Just a few years later, when referring to methods used at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, she wrote, “The treatment we gave when the sanitarium was first established required earnest labor to combat disease. We did not use drug concoctions; we followed hygienic methods. This work was blessed of God.”7
The medical practices at the Battle Creek Sanitarium followed the counsel of Ellen White and were revolutionary for the nineteenth century. However, she was not completely against the use of drugs for specifically recognized sicknesses.
“It is easy to misunderstand the broad scope of her message,” wrote Dr. Mervyn Hardinge8 in his book A Physician Explains Ellen White’s Counsel on Drugs, Herbs, and Natural Remedies. “Ellen White was one of the drug/health reformers, attempting to change the brutal, nonsensical manner in which orthodox medicine operated. It administered potent drugs for most any illness, minor or major. . . . Drugging, together with blood-letting, blistering, and purging, killed the sick by the thousands.”9 Hardinge points out, however, that Ellen White did not forbid the use of all drugs. “Her intent was that people employ harmless physiological remedies whenever feasible . . . [but] we should not consider her a drug nihilist even though many often try to portray her as one.”10
When Ellen White faced suspected skin cancer in 1911, she went for X-ray radiation treatments at the St. Helena (California) Sanitarium. “For several weeks I took treatment with the X-ray for the black spot that was on my forehead,” she wrote to her son J. Edson White. “In all I took 23 treatments, and these succeeded in entirely removing the mark. For this I am very grateful.”11 On another occasion during a smallpox epidemic, Ellen White was vaccinated and urged her workers to also take this step.12
Better Choices Now
Today thousands of lives are saved through medical intervention, ranging from straightforward appendectomies to high-tech robotic surgeries and lifesaving therapies.
Diagnostic tools and laboratory analyses have greatly improved over the past several decades, making it possible for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses to be detected much earlier, explains Dr. Allan Handysides, an OB/GYN and pediatrician who serves as director of the Health Ministries Department at the General Conference. “I’ve seen changes [in cancer treatment] where 97 percent of kids with leukemia died, to now where 30 percent die. When you see changes like that, isn’t the medical treatment worth it?” he asks. “But there has to be an element of trust—in the doctor and trust in the Lord. You have to do everything you can, and then I believe you have every right to ask the Lord. But there is a certain incredulousness about only praying about something that can be cured through medical intervention. Is that presumption, or is it faith? If a person breaks their arm, of course they will go to the doctor, but if a person has cancer and the doctor can remove it, some will resist treatment and seek “alternative therapies.” (For Dr. Handysides’ full discussion see his column, “Ask the Doctors,” on pages 28, 29).
The Rest of the Story
Ultimately, the decision of what to do rests with the individual who has cancer. Being a lifelong Adventist, I was well aware of the health principles of eating right, exercising regularly (preferably in the fresh air and sunlight), drinking enough water, getting adequate sleep, and placing my trust in God. But as I considered treatment options, I found anecdotal support but no empirical evidence that natural methods alone are effective in treating cancer. Additionally, I found Ellen White’s counsel (and example) reasonable and balanced—encouraging the use of natural remedies when possible, but not forbidding the use of drugs or medical treatment (such as radiation) when absolutely necessary.13
Amid much prayer, I opted to follow my doctor’s recommendations of major surgery followed by radiation therapy. I do not condemn others, however, who choose another route. Health-care decisions are very personal, and no one should be judged for the choices they make.
In addition to the medical interventions, I made a determined effort to follow the natural health laws as complementary therapy, strengthening my immune system and speeding recovery. Most important of all was to place my trust in God, recognizing that my life belonged to Him.
Good Out of Bad
I realized that even if I did everything “right,” I could still die. There are no guarantees. Even if I were to be anointed, as outlined in James 5, I might not be healed. “We must not just look at the physical aspect when it comes to anointing,” says Gerhard Pfandl, a part-time associate director at the church’s Biblical Research Institute. “It refers to spiritual healing as well. ‘And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven’ [James 5:15]. We must do what we can to help ourselves, but of course God sometimes does [physically] heal on the basis of prayer; He doesn’t do it all the time, but if it is to His glory, He will.”
In considering my own journey, I realize that much good has come out of my cancer experience. I am thankful to the many capable and compassionate doctors, nurses, and technicians who cared for me. I am grateful to the Lord for working through them and the treatment I received.
In spite of the pain, anxiety, and uncertainty, this experience has opened my eyes to see the true treasures of life: the value of every moment, the gift of health, the preciousness of friends and loved ones, and the imperative of living every day allotted to me in this life with purpose—loving and serving the Lord with all of my “heart, soul, mind, and strength” (see Mark 12:30), eagerly looking forward to the day when Jesus comes and makes all things new (Rev. 21:4, 5).
- American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts and Figures 2012 (Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2012), p. 1; at http://www.cancer.org/research/cancerfactsfigures/cancerfactsfigures/cancer-facts-figures-2012.
- Table, “Probability (%) of Developing Invasive Cancers Over Selected Age Intervals by Sex, U.S., 2006-2008,” in Cancer Facts and Figures 2012, p. 11.
- Not her real name.
- Epigenetics refers to modifications to genes other than changes in the DNA sequence itself and has potential applications in cancer diagnosis, cancer therapeutics, and cancer prevention, as well as in autoimmune disorders (www.sciencedaily.com).
- Letter 17a, 1893, in Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958),book 2, p. 279.
- Letter 82, 1892, in E. G. White, Selected Messages, book 2, p. 293.
- Dr. Mervyn G. Hardinge was a well-respected Seventh-day Adventist physician who held three doctoral degrees. He was the founding dean of the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University and had broad-based experience in pharmacology, nutrition, and health.
- Mervyn G. Hardinge, A Physician Explains Ellen White’s Counsel on Drugs, Herbs, and Natural Remedies (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2001), p. 169.
- Ibid., pp. 192, 193.
- Letter 30, 1911, as cited in Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years, 1905-1915 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), vol. 6, p. 344.
- D. E. Robinson, in E. G. White, Selected Messages, book 2, p. 303.
- For a full and balanced discussion, see Dr. Mervyn Hardinge’s book Drugs, Herbs, and Natural Remedies, referenced in footnote 9.