Just over 4 years ago I was diagnosed with a high-grade, aggressive cancer and told that with treatment, I would have approximately 5 years to live. This prognosis left me stunned and numb, not knowing quite what to do in that moment. Anyone who has experienced the reality of cancer knows the immediate impact this has for the person and for the family. I describe it as if you hit an invisible wall that stops you in your tracks, while the rest of life carries on and passes by. Over the next few days as my wife and I contemplated what this diagnosis meant for our future, we came to the conclusion that she, a highly organised and detailed person, needed a plan, while I, a more relational, philosophical person needed a story. My story needed to integrate the reality of what I was going through and, at the same time, include how cancer impacted my theology of God, life, death and the future. The plan and my story have informed and shaped our lives over the past 4 years. What follows are some insights I have gleaned along the way.
Firstly, that life as we know it is fragile and uncertain. I once counselled a friend going through brain cancer that many desire to know something of the end limit of their life so they can plan well. Unfortunately, these plans are never guaranteed. As Jügen Moltmann states,
“what we hope for and what we expect can be discerned from our wishes and intentions. But what awaits us to ring our lifetime we don’t know. The future into which our wishes and intentions tentatively reach out is full of surprises, for good or ill. It makes sense to accept the fact, and confidence though circumspectly.”
This means that many of the dreams, plans and visions we carry need to be held lightly. Consequently, my illness and treatment have given me opportunities to regularly stop and reflect on who I am, who we are as a family, what has greater worth and value in our life (and, consequently, what is less important), and what I can do each day to faithfully reflect the person God wants me to be—including how I can encourage others in their story. Since diagnosis, as I opened up about my own current situation many in my community including friends, work colleagues, students, and strangers, have opened up about their own stories of cancer and illness. My story gave them permission to speak about their story and share their struggles and pain, fears and anxiety. As Paul says in 2 Cor 1:4 (MSG) God “comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.” Looking back, by embracing and sharing my own story I realise I have helped give voice to others’ stories.
A second insight is that God heals in three ways. 1) through miracles; 2) through medicine; 3) through physical death. Not surprisingly, this last point has evoked criticism of my “theology” and of a potential lack of faith that God will heal and deliver me. While miraculous healing is real and desirable, life as we experience it remains fragile and temporal. The Bible never speaks of this current life as eternal or devoid of struggle, suffering or sickness. Consequently, experiencing the miraculous or not, does not in itself indicate the presence or absence of God. In fact, it is often in the midst of suffering and struggle that people experience a very present God. As the Psalmist says “Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I'm not afraid when you walk at my side.” (23:3; MSG). This reminds us that God is not just present beyond our struggles, but in fact, also present with us in our struggles, and will, therefore, be with us regardless of what tomorrow brings. For those who don’t experience the miraculous, God is still present, loving people and giving purpose and meaning to their lives. Over the years since diagnosis, Trudy has often asked me whether I fear the process of dying or death itself. On reflection, it is the process that I worry about most, and the potential pain and grief that this will cause myself and others. This remains an ever-present concern, although it is not always forefront in my thinking. However, as I have struggled at times to come to terms with living with cancer, I have experienced the presence of God through the compassion and prayers of friends and strangers. I have experienced support and encouragement as I have watched others come to terms with their own current circumstances and experience a peace they have struggled to find previously.
Third, I have learnt to rethink, redefine and embody my eschatology. The Christian understanding of time is that we live between the times of Christ’s first and second coming and that this life with all its limitations is not all there is. But that does not in any way minimise our anxiety of the future nor remove the place of questioning and reflection. Considering again the statement to my friend about knowing the end of our lives, As a theologian, biblical scholar, pastor and counsellor, my experience of cancer has forced me to reconsider my eschatology—my belief about the future, about death and end times. Confronted with the possibility of a limited life, I remember saying to God that I will not pass from this life without first having a “three-dimensional” understanding of eternal life. This led me to consider how Christians often view death, and the idea that God heals through death. What has helped me come to terms with the actuality of death, has helped me mentally and emotionally navigate this journey and, at the same time, develop a “three-dimensional” eschatology is 1 Cor 2:9–10: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind conceived the things God has prepared for those who love him. These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit” (NIV adapted). This speaks to the Christian story of the promise and hope of “life after ‘life after death’” (Tom Wright’s term).
My story has been forever changed by my diagnosis; but that is true of every event in life, whether good, bad or often, very ugly. My cancer and what followed may have brought certain struggles, suffering and grief, but on reflection, this reality has allowed me to rethink and redefine who I am and what I do with each day, knowing that the immediate future, as uncertain is it is, is only secure in the promises of God who is present in everything we go through. Furthermore, embracing and accepting my illness and potential limited future, I have seen that working Trudy’s plan and developing my story together, have enabled me to live each day as a gift and encourage others to do so as well.
As this article goes to print there have been numerous students and staff at Alphacrucis who have personally experienced the impact of Covid, cancer and other illnesses, and the death of loved ones. The grief and the mental and emotional impact of these circumstances are real and for many, carry with them a deep sense of loss and pain. My hope is that my story may bring comfort and help others come to terms with and have permission to express anxiety, fears and concerns in their own story. I also hope it encourages others to be the comfort for someone else and support them as they navigate their stories of struggle and suffering. Ultimately, however, I hope that this story encourages us all to recognise that our life is not our own, that no one’s future plan is guaranteed, but that we will view each day as a gift to be experienced and lived in gratitude and freedom.
 Jürgen Moltmann,
In the End, the Beginning: The Life of
Hope (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 139.
Grant is currently the MA Program director with AC where he also teaches Theology and Biblical Studies. He has completed his PhD at University of Divinity in Melbourne looking at a pneumatological reading of Galatians and how this impacts identity.