So, why does God permit cancer? If God is so good, why is there so much disease, sickness, and pain in the world? If God is such a great designer, why is there so much cancer?
And there is a lot of cancer in the world. About half of us will develop cancer at some point in our lives. That sobering statistic shows just how common cancer is today in our world.
It affects us all whether in us personally, or whether in those we love. Cancer is so prevalent that it touches nearly every family on Earth.
Cancer is an insidious disease. We might feel perfectly fine and yet have cancer somewhere in our body. It can spread everywhere before we even know it is there to fight. It can be incurable when first diagnosed.
We have learned a lot about cancer over the past fifty years but it still kills About 600,000 Americans will die from cancer each year. It is still a killer even though we know much more about it. We can cure more cancers than ever before, especially if diagnosed early.
But it is still a killer
So why would God design our bodies in such a way that cancer is possible?
Cancer and Biology
Scientists can make a good case for the existence of an Intelligent Designer. The fantastic sophistication of even the simplest bacterial life makes a Designer seem obvious.
Yet, why would God not create a body where cancer is not possible – or a body where there could be any disease?
This is one of the most difficult yet significant objections to the design argument. It is a variation of why God allows so much evil in the world. This “evil” is the evil of disease, pain, and suffering.
There is often a personal nature to the existence of this evil. Many people are affected by this evil; it is not theoretical at all.
Recently, a paper published by a research team from Cambridge University may help provide some hints to the answer.
Many of the biochemical flaws found in all of us are not really genuine flaws of construction at all. They arise due to a compromise – a trade-off. Biochemistry is a very complicated science, and a metabolic pathway that is good for some causes may be bad for others.
It is impossible for every system at every time to be operating perfectly well. Usually, one system has to be shut down in order for the system to meet current needs.
Cancer is not due to faulty design when seen in this paradigm. Instead, it represents a trade-off between DNA repair and cell survival.
In other words, it represents a compromise between two competing goals.
Trade-Offs: Sleep Example
Perhaps a common illustration will help. Scientists have often pondered the reason why mammals sleep. It would seem on the surface to be a maladaptive behavior. This is because while an animal is asleep, it is helpless to defend itself.
Theoretically, an enemy might be able to sneak up on it and render it helpless before it could wake up and defend itself.
Thought of in this way, it would seem like maladaptive behavior to render yourself helpless for full a third of the day.
But we now understand that sleep is not just passive unconsciousness. There are many important things going on while we sleep. One of the most important chores of slumber is to clear the brain of bad chemicals. Some of these chemicals may lead to Alzheimer’s Disease over time.
We know that even a night of poor or inadequate sleep can lead to an accumulation of these chemicals. Over time this leads to Alzheimer’s Disease. Also, sleep is a time for memory consolidation and injury repair to occur.
The compromise is that while the animal is rendered nearly helpless, important functions are occurring. These functions cannot occur during wakefulness and are relegated to sleep.
This is a familiar example of competing goals between two worthwhile but mutually exclusive alternatives.
The duplication of DNA in a cell is very efficient. The human genome is about three billion letters long. With an error rate of one in a million, there would still be ten new mutations every time a cell divides. Since there are 37 trillion cells in an adult’s body, that would result in millions of mutations a day.
The reason why we are all alive after a few days is that the majority of these mutations do not occur in important areas. Other mutations are so bad they kill the cell – and the mutation dies with it.
Some of this damage occurs from the oxygen we breathe and the water we drink. This can cause damage to DNA. Outside chemicals such as alcohol and tobacco can cause mutations as well. Exposure to ultraviolet light on a bright, sunny day or radioactivity from the environment or cosmic rays can also cause DNA damage.
Infectious agents – especially viruses, can also cause cancer.
DNA mutations are part of the laws of nature. These laws also make possible the chemical structure of ourselves and the Universe and are necessary for life. But as a consequence, some of these chemicals and exposures can produce serious damage to DNA.
It if is not “fixed”, then that mutation might lead to cancer.
So Why Does God Permit Cancer
Mutations can sometimes lead to cancer. But it is usually the accumulations of multiple mutations that finally lead to malignancy. Usually, it is a series of mutation in certain genes (“cancer genes”) can lead to cancer.
Most mutations have no biological consequence and are called “passenger mutations.” There are other mutations called “driver mutations” that can lead to malignant change. Researchers show there may be thousands of passenger mutations in a cancer cell and only a few driver mutations.
Researchers from Cambridge University have found out that DNA repair is very costly to cells. It requires a lot of energy and cell resources. This means that to produce error-free DNA might kill the cell.
The researchers conclude,
DNA quality control pathways are fully functional but naturally permissive of mutagenesis even in normal cells.
Usually, the permissiveness of DNA repair does not produce any problems.
It also seems like the repair mechanism is naturally biased. Researchers show that most of the DNA repair is in those regions that code for proteins. DNA repair occurs in those areas where it is most important.
This preferential treatment of important enzymatic regions suggests intelligent design.
The researchers suggest that cancer prevention pathways are very impressive in humans. They noted,
“Considering that an adult human has ~30 trillion cells and only one cell develops into cancer, human cells are remarkably robust at preventing cancer.
Everybody who is an adult knows the difficulty we all face when making decisions sometimes. There may be a choice to be made between two good options.
Such is the case here. The cell must choose between a cell with pure DNA or a cell that lives. Producing a pristine DNA molecule might kill the cell due to the energy it would entail.
This fine-tuning of the cell’s ability to treat most mutations, to selectively decide which mutations to repair, and the ability to evaluate many billions of mutations a day.
Certainly, these findings do little to comfort those battling the disease of Cancer. There has been considerable progress in the understanding of cancer and how to treat it.
We are on a threshold of a new world in cancer treatment. Treatments are being developed that will revolutionize and individualize treatment.
The presence of evil in the world is not without reason; it helps us to remember this is not our permanent home. We are only passing through.
There is very little I can guarantee as a physician – but one of them is that we will all die. And, I can also be quite sure that we will all die from something – some disease, suicide, homicide – something.
We are – none of us – meant to live forever.