A Life-Giving Brain Cancer

In July of 2022, I was diagnosed with a tumour in the left frontal lobe of my brain; what doctors termed the eloquent, dominant brain.

Every medical professional I’ve met since has asked: how did you first find out? The average person has a 1% chance of developing a brain tumour, and the varied symptoms depend on the location of the mass.

I was diagnosed with a tumour in my brain … I’ve never been happier or felt more blessed than I do right now

In my case, my sister and I had been relaxing in Bali when I suffered a seizure that prompted her to rush me to the hospital. I was 30 years old, freshly resigned from a rewarding job, and headed into a Master’s degree in Germany in August. I woke up in the emergency room with a very different life.

Six months later, I am glad to have completed active treatment, and excited for a second future. In fact, I’ve never been happier or felt more blessed than I do right now, and I’m eager to share with you why.

The Fear of Death

I am probably the most anxious person I know. When things go great, I still want everything to be as perfect as possible. When things go badly, I can think of at least three ways it might get worse. And yet, my heart now is full, without fear or anxiety, because of my cancer.

Why didn’t I have a crisis of faith? I credit the Bible-preaching church I attended and the fellowship within it. Years of good preaching, Bible study, prayer meetings, and observing the conduct of better Christians had all worked together to prepare my heart.

They also saved me from some of the common questions. I already knew that:

  • Suffering comes to everyone;
  • I was going to die eventually, because life has a 100% fatality rate;
  • No one can predict with total certainty what the future holds;

I also knew that:

  • If I suffered, it didn’t mean that God was punishing me;
  • When I die, I won’t lose everything;
  • God’s plans for me will triumph no matter what (Rom 8:37-39 ).

God’s plans for me will triumph no matter what.

And yet, the intellectual knowledge was still not enough. The night before my open craniotomy (my brain surgery), I didn’t know if the procedure would take away my speech or my personality, or if I would die on the table. That night, I read through the book of Job: I wanted to see why God was so pleased with Job and his response to his suffering.

I wanted, somehow, to suffer well too. I learned and committed to two things:

First, I would bear my suffering, but I would not multiply it by worrying about why or what next. Nor would I overthink my symptoms, pains or discomforts; I would have to persevere through them regardless.

Secondly, even if I died, I would not dishonour my God in the time I had left by charging Him with injustice, privately or publicly.

I tried to be like Job in being honest to God with my tears. I think the only time I really cried from grief and shock was when my tumour was found to be a cancer: a grade 3 oligodendroglioma.

I cried because I was disappointed.

I cried because I was scared.

I cried because I didn’t want to die.

Even then, I knew God had not abandoned me. Every day he inclined His ear to me and answered my prayers. He provided us with our needs, blessed others through us, led us through complex medical decisions, and continually gave us delightful surprises that assured me, renewed my joy and taught me to trust him fully.

However, it turns out I still trusted Him too little. He was doing something far beyond my understanding.

God’s Providence

It’s ironic that we fear cancer so much, since it is probably the closest sinful man can get to eternal life without God: the only known immortal human cell is a cancer cell (HeLa). Cancer wants to live forever: getting hungrier the more it eats, abandoning its function. Desperate to evade death, it kills its host and dies anyway. The final horrific manifestation of a body of sin.

In the central nervous system, the most common, fastest progressing, and most fatal is a grade 4 brain cancer. It is typically found too late—the masses get so large the brain is compressed in the skull cavity. Radiation and chemotherapy are minimally effective, and surgery is too risky.

Between July when we first found it, and October when it was excised, the mass in my brain had grown by 25%. With nowhere to expand to, it would have likely mutated to grade 4, and cost me my speech and mobility, or caused seizures and hostility.

If I had not had that painless seizure in my sleep, if my sister had not rushed me to the hospital; if we had taken one surgeon’s “watch and wait” advice instead of acting quickly; if we had biopsied first and missed the cancerous parts of the mass; if we had chosen only a partial resection; if histology had named it benign instead of malignant, then I would likely have died the worst death I can imagine—losing myself each day without understanding why. This would have been my last Christmas and New Year.

The Shadow Retreats

However, God intervened perfectly to save me from the executioner’s block.

I can’t explain how it makes me feel: I feel like Hezekiah watching the shadow retreat ten steps (1 Kings 20:10); I feel like Lazarus walking out of the tomb (John 11:38-44).

There’s a vast chasm between my old life of anxiously committing to a life of doing good and wondering if it is enough, to this new life of abundant joy.

People in situations like mine ask whether they’ve spent their life on the right things. This cancer has confirmed that yes, I have been living for the right things: to serve the Lord and his will, to love God and my fellow man; to love mercy and walk humbly with him (Micah 6:8). Yet there’s a vast chasm between my old life of anxiously committing to a life of doing good and wondering if it is enough, to this new life of abundant joy. Now, I enthusiastically pour myself into doing good, knowing the work of Christ is complete and cannot be added to.

Of course, even Hezekiah and Lazarus eventually died, and I know I will do the same. I don’t know if the cancer will come back, or if it will be the thing that ends my life on this earth.

What I do know is that God has a plan for me, and that I will spend my life multiplying his blessings to me. My money is for the poor. My time is for the lonely. The work of my hands is to ensure justice is distributed as far as my hands can reach. I know for sure God will enable me to fulfill my vows in the presence of His people. (Psalm 116:18)

Teach us to Number our Days

Here are a couple of questions I hope you will consider and answer for yourself:

First: Suffering is coming for you, no matter who you are. Whether you are young, old, Christian or otherwise; the babe in your arms, the wife you newly married; the person who seems to have already been through too much—no one is exempt from it. It is only a matter of time.

What will happen to you and in you when that happens? Do you know the Love who will never let you go? When I say that God can work immense good in your worst-case scenario, would you be able to say Amen to that?

Second, What does it mean to you for God to bless you? By this I mean, what blessing was Jacob wrestling for, when he said, “I will not let you go until you bless me,” (Genesis 32:26)? It was not land, possessions, health or long life. I believe it was for God to be with him no matter what. God did indeed answer him and never left Israel: even when his beloved wife died, even when his two favoured children were taken from him, even when he was dragged from the Promised Land onto foreign, pagan soil, only to die before he could return to the land he yearned for in his bones.

That’s the blessing of God. Just like we hear every Christmas: Immanuel–God with us. No matter the suffering we go through, God’s presence is better than anything our hearts desire. Though my body may fail, my faith and life is fireproof: though there are rumours of war, pestilence, and ruin, and our little sheep eyes can’t hazard what’s ahead, we can trust in the voice of our Shepherd, who is ever near.

And so, in all its meanings, I hope that God may always ever bless you.