So, here’s a scenario for you.
Say that you are a thirty-three year old female diagnosed with thyroid cancer. You have your thyroid surgically removed, but there is no way to remove all of the tissue so the recommended course of treatment is to receive radioiodine treatment.
You go to the hospital and while you’re enjoying the liberating embarrassment of a hospital johnie, you are met by four men carrying a lead-lined briefcase. They present you with a single capsule which contains an isotope of iodine known as iodine-131. What else is there to do? You take the pill.
The small quantity of iodine-131 you are ingesting has come a long way. It used to be a different element altogether. For thousands of years, it was tellurium-130, an element as rare on earth as platinum. It was happily bonded to some other earth mineral, most likely quartz, since the formation of the continents.
Then an engineer dug it up out of the earth, made it into a target and gave it to a physicist who bombarded it with neutrons. The tellurium atoms mutated and changed quickly, with many of them turning into unstable tellurium and xenon atoms that break down almost instantaneously. But some of them pick up an extra proton, which in turn attracts a loose electron from the mess, and the result is the relatively unstable iodine-131 molecule.
Every 8.02 days, half of the iodine-131 atoms in any mass will have a breakdown of sorts. One of its 78 neutrons will split into an electron and a proton shedding energy in the form of a gamma ray. The protons and electrons stay in the nuclei, turning the iodine into xenon. The radiation, which no one really understands fully, streams out of the atom. What happens next is still a bit of a mystery, but one thing is for sure. The thyroid cells holding the iodine during this process are destroyed.
This is a complex, nuclear event. Lots of stuff is happening. There should be a mushroom cloud or something – but there isn’t. This complex, nuclear event is the antithesis of an atomic bomb. You are stuck in isolation. Even your television is wrapped in plastic. Your nurses rush in and out of the room to prevent exposure.
Your neck swells as tissue is destroyed and cells disintegrate. The escaping gamma radiation is ionizing DNA molecules, knocking electrons out of orbit in atoms and causing the atoms of amino acids to lose their grip on each other.
What was once living (even if cancerous) tissue is now dead, inert chemicals. The body has a system for dealing with this, flushing the unusable xenon and iodine into the excretory system and recycling what it can.
But all of that takes time and occurs on a microscopic level. Meanwhile you feel like someone punched you in the neck.
You have to live in quarantine for at least three days, one of which you spend at the hospital. When the physicist – not a physician but a physicist – tells you that your radiation levels are below 5 millirem per hour.
You don’t know that a millirem is 1/1000th of a roentgen or that it is a measurement of gamma radiation. After all, gamma radiation is what turned Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk.
But the physicist knows that the people around you will be exposed to the gamma radiation being given off by the iodine-131 in your system. You have become a source of harmful radiation, so he wants to make sure that your husband and daughter will not be exposed to harmful amounts.
When you’re no longer harmful, they release you. You drive home and get to spend the next three days in isolation – unable to touch your loved ones.
That has been my wife’s week.
Let me explain something in case you didn’t know. Cancer sucks.
Even a very treatable form of cancer like the cancer my wife has or the form her sister fought last year is still awful.
Here is what cancer is.
It starts with a single cell is produced with an altered DNA sequence. The altered sequence can be from genetic mutation or radiation exposure or even (believe it or not) a fungus or virus. That cell ceases to produce healthy, productive cells and instead produces non-functioning ones.
You should know that everyone has cancer cells. Our bodies are marvelous at producing new cells, but with ten trillion cells in a human body, there are bound to be errors. For the most part, your body is very good at identifying and destroying these faulty cells.
But sometimes the body simply cannot keep up. In that case, the mutated cancer cells replicate unchecked. They grow faster than healthy cells and in time can cause healthy organs to fail.
What is truly astounding is that there is absolutely no reason your body cannot deal with these mutations. The cure for cancer should be very simple. Just tell the cells to stop producing bad copies and then tell the healthy cells to replace them.
Believe it or not, this is the entire impetus behind the human genome project. It is the driving force behind billions upon billions of dollars of drug research. To stop cancer, you don’t have to destroy it. You simply have to get the body to do what it is supposed to do and your body should heal itself.
But nobody can do it.
So for no reason, inexplicably, cancer strikes. It hits kids and seniors, men and women. It is indiscriminate because it is not an it. It is your own body turning against you.
The way I see it, cancer can be one of two things:
1. It is evidence of evolution. In other words, the existence of cancerous mutation is evidence of the way in which life changed and altered over the epochs. My problem with this is that cancer is never good for the organism. It is always harmful.
2. It is evidence of sin in the world. When we look at cancer, we see our need for restoration and redemption. We realize the frailty of life and the necessity of a Savior.
I choose the second, although not everyone will agree.