What Is Cancer?

This entry is part 23 in the series Victory in the Valley

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So what exactly is cancer?

I now found myself desperate to know more. I started to consume every book I could find on the subject: the Cancer Association articles, the books about breast cancer from Beulah, some which Rob found for me in the library and others brought to me by visitors. As soon as I was strong enough, Rob took me to the local bookshop and to the nearest Christian bookstore.

“This is so frustrating,” I grumbled. “Most of these books do not refer to the spiritual side at all. Those that do, almost always lean toward a belief system I can’t accept.” 

Books about breast cancer

I sensed that there was more to this disease than the physical. Surely there were things I could do on an emotional level, which would not offend my Christian faith.

Almost all the books about breast cancer I read encouraged practices which I knew to be wrong, allowing outside forces to take over my mind and body. They encouraged me to make my mind a blank, to go into a trance, to allow myself to be hypnotized. I didn’t believe I should allow any of these practices. Yet I knew I should be able to involve my mind in the healing process.

We continued to hunt for Christian books about breast cancer, especially real-life stories. I soon learned the importance—for me anyway—of checking the back page before bringing the book home. If the last page contained an obituary I put the book right back on the shelf. I needed to be positive. There were people out there who had survived, and those were the people whose books I needed to read.

So few books met my requirements. I resolved that when I was well again, I would write the book that I needed right then. Meantime I had to find ways to use my mind and emotions. But how?

I put this to one side temporarily, and returned to more pressing issues. What had caused my cancer?

I already knew that cancer was caused by the reproduction of deformed cells. It encouraged me to think of them as weak and confused. This was the opposite to the usual picture of cancer as the “Almighty Destroyer.” But what had caused these cells to become deformed in the first place?

Why had I developed cancer?

I learned that Breast Cancer is one of the few cancers which can occur in families. I was the first one in my family, and I prayed that I would be the last. My siblings were at high risk. Seeing I only had one brother and no sisters, I thought we were in the clear.


I discovered that what is generally thought of as a women’s problem is actually on the increase in men. An American survey states that for every 100 women, one man is diagnosed with breast cancer.

A man in America tried to enter a promotional race for survivors of Breast Cancer, but was turned away, as it was only for women. He contested this, but I can’t remember if he won his case. I hope he did.

As far as I knew, none of my ancestors had suffered from breast cancer. But my children all have to be diligent in checking their breasts regularly, my sons as well as my daughter, and my grandchildren as they grow up.

Speed of Growth

Once cancer cells start to multiply, they do so at an alarming rate. Some of them, if not arrested in time, spread to adjacent tissue, or they may even travel via the blood-stream or lymph vessels to distant organs. There they set up camp and form a secondary tumor,known as metastases.

However the incredible speed with which they reproduce is also part of their downfall.

The incredible speed with which cancer cells reproduce is also part of their downfall. See more . . . Click To Tweet

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy both rely upon this accelerated growth for their effectiveness. In each of these treatments, the machines or chemicals target rapidly growing cells. So the fast proliferation of the cancer cells actually blows their cover.

“Just as well!” I remarked to Rob as I shared these facts with him. “Symptoms only start to show up when the tumor has grown large enough to cause problems. How important it is to check our health regularly.”

I hadn’t realized, until then, that there are different types of breast cancer, as well as several stages. My tumor was Stage Two and had already started to spread from the breast. The oncologist explained that it was very fast growing, and the pathology report described it as “poorly defined.” This meant it was difficult to remove.

“According to statistics,” I read to Rob, “One out of every eleven women have breast cancer. And here I thought I was one of the elite few.” 

The statistics also said that three out of every four “Stage Two” breast cancer patients will live to be grandparents! That fact is not widely publicized.

Three out of every four Stage Two breast cancer patients will live to be grandparents! Read more here. Click To Tweet

I deliberately started to cultivate a scornful disregard for statistics. After all, there are no statistics for how long Shirleys live after contracting cancer. I am not a statistic. There is only one me.

What of the future?

Some years ago, if I survived five years after my operation, doctors would regard me as being cured. Medical experts today know this is false. Today, if there is no sign of a recurrence, medical experts will say it is “in remission.” The breast cancer cell can regenerate, so it can always come back.

Having said that, every day that passed after the surgery my chances of survival increased.

I didn’t want to know how long medical science thought I had to live. How could a mere doctor tell me that?

In the Bible I read All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139 verse 16). God knew how long my life would be before I was even born. My diagnosis hadn’t blown His plans! I certainly didn’t want to live according to a man-made measure, watching as my earthly time got shorter each day. What would I do if I ran out of days?


Over to you

How do you think you would react if you were told by medical professionals that you had 7 months to live? What would you do with that information? How would it affect your decision-making?

Please leave a comment, and if you leave a live URL in your comment, I’ll get back to you.

These events occurred over 20 years ago. I have tried to recreate events and locations as accurately as possible, but in order to maintain their anonymity, in some instances I have changed the names and identifying characteristics of individuals and places.

Time is Running Out

diaryJOURNAL ENTRY: 2nd November, 1997 Today, I learned I have cancer. How can this be? Cancer happens to other people. 

“You have cancer, and I don’t think they’ll be able to get it all out.” That’s what the radiologist told me after the mammogram and before the sonar. He seemed mad with me. Why? 

read more

The Big ‘C’ Has A Name

Big COver the last few posts, we’ve seen that good does come out of cancer—eventually. But what can we do to cope with, or even improve, the experience in the meantime? During the next few posts, we’re going to take a look at some of the ways we can improve our cancer experience; ways to detract from the negative effects of the disease.

One of the first things we can do is call it by its name. There’s a cliché that goes, “Give a dog a bad name and hang it.” Let’s face it, names don’t get much worse than “cancer”. Look at Hollywood. If they want to portray a person with no hope, with a short life expectancy, someone to be pitied, they usually give the person cancer. If we want to refer to describe something as destructive and evil, we say, “We need to get rid of that. It’s a cancer.”

The very word “cancer” strikes fear to the strongest person. And so people have come up with creative words to act as substitutes. We call it “The Big C”, or “C.A.”, or we get medical and refer to it as “carcinoma”. It’s as if, by calling it something different, it won’t be as scary, or as frightening, or as fatal. It’s important to face the diagnosis.

When we give the disease another name, this leads to a state of denial. It makes it even more difficult to come to terms with an already difficult issue. Cancer has a name. It is finite. It can be beaten. Don’t let’s give it more power than it deserves. Call it by its name, and by so doing we will encourage others to do the same. So you have cancer? I’m sorry. That’s tough. But there are survivors of the Vietnam War. There are survivors of the Rhodesian Bush War. And there are survivors of cancer—millions of us. Let’s call it by its ugly name, and hang it!      

Fear of Giants

grasshopper“Caleb said “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” Numbers 13:30, NIV Struggling to come to terms with a diagnosis of cancer, I could identify with the story of the spies sent out by Moses. For 40 days they surveyed Kadesh.

They could tell Moses and the Israelites about the land, its people, and the towns they lived in. The land flowed with milk and honey, but they said the people were “giants” and they themselves were but “grasshoppers.” A threatening future loomed before me. I felt inadequate, defenseless and fragile in the face of surgery, radiotherapy, the chemotherapy. Could I do this? How tempting it was to see myself as a grasshopper!

Because Israel listened to the ten spies who had their eyes on the giants instead of listening to Joshua and Caleb, they wandered forty years in the wilderness. The only adults of that original group to go into Canaan were Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who said, “We can certainly do it!” Often we feel inadequate to face what lies before us. But we serve a mighty God, and with God’s help, “We can certainly do it.”

PRAY WITH ME: Loving Father, when I feel like a grasshopper and see only giants, help me to keep my eyes on you. Amen. Originally posted 24 July 2010