I recently read that a friend (I’ll call him Joe; not his real name) “lost his battle with cancer and died.” That troubled me. Indeed, my friend died some months after finding out that he had an aggressive and insidious cancer in his body. I had the privilege and honor of preaching at his funeral. But he did not lose his battle with cancer. He died in Christ; he died in the Lord. That is not losing.
For some time, I have struggled with this phraseology “battling cancer,” thinking there is a better way of describing how a person with cancer goes forth, particularly a person of faith. At this point (it may change), I am preferring to use the image of journeying. There are other good options: traveling with cancer and living with cancer come to mind. Clearly there is a kind of battle going on in the body of someone with cancer, whether in treatment or not. The body is rallying against this malevolent invader, without question. That battle is in itself weakening the body.
My friend Joe journeyed with cancer. He didn’t ask for cancer. He didn’t engage in habits that invite or promote cancer. He lived as a healthy person, alert mentally, spiritually, and physically. His life was vitally engaged in serving God and others. And cancer came to him. A deadly cancer. I visited him about two months into his journey. He was not wallowing in self-pity. He was not asking, “Why me?” He was seated in his favorite chair, obviously weakened in body, but not in spirit. He was cheerful. Filled with hope. Ultimate hope. At the end of our visit, I prayed with him. And I continued praying for him until he died. Many others were doing the same. There were home visits with Holy Communion. He listened to the music he loved. He stayed engaged in life; he didn’t check out before his time. Then he died and his journey with cancer was over. He could say with Paul, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
My friend journeyed with cancer. Faithfully, he journeyed. About four months after our visit, he died. Faithfully. Triumphantly. He left directions for which hymns would be sung at his funeral service and which passages of scripture would be read and which would be the basis for my sermon. His death leaves a void in the hearts of his family members and numerous friends. There is no question that we miss him.
But he didn’t lose his battle. He went from life abundant to life eternal. Cancer did not have the last word. Jesus always has the last word. We who believe in and follow Jesus must be clear on this. Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) And Jesus always has the last word. “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:5)