February 25, 2024

Alumni Oncologist Speaks on Suffering and Love

Ken Bishop. Photo by Joe Codrington.

By Collin Hall ’21
News Editor

Ken Bishop, an Oncologist from Marlborough Massachusetts, gave his fourth and final lecture this past March 5, 2018. He finished his time here at Gordon with a deeply personal reflection on pain and suffering, and on the role of love in the midst of pain.

He stated, “As human beings and especially in our own culture, we have a tendency to think of pain as something to avoid at great cost, or something from which to distance ourselves.”

Continuing he explained, “In the example of cancer, the presence of pain in our early stages is a significant benefit because it means we would be able to cure the cancer… It could actually teach us something.” There are some other types of cancer like mesothelioma, learn more about it here mesothelioma attorneys | Karst & von Oiste

“We need to remember that there are times when pain has a purpose.”

Bishop spoke of a man dying from terminal lung cancer. The man asked Bishop: “what did I do to deserve this?”

Bishop’s answer was clear: nothing.  In his mind, nobody deserves a terminal diagnosis. Yet it is tempting to look at this man’s condition and say that he ‘had it coming.”

Bishop urged that this is not a helpful approach. The man was lifelong smoker, but dwelling on details like this does nothing to help Bishop further love this suffering patient.  Just because the man was a smoker did not mean he “deserves” cancer.

The smoking habit to blame for the man’s cancer, according to Bishop, is rooted in devious tobacco marketing and in societal links between cigarettes and “brave, nicotine addicted heroes.”  Although he chose to smoke, his ultimately fatal habit is a product of the culture in which he lived. learn more about it here.

Bishop showed a trend-line showing a correlation between aggressive marketing towards specific demographics and a later increase in deaths within those same targeted demographics.

Bishop explained that we often feel a “need to impose a narrative on our circumstances, or on the circumstances of others in order to make our world make sense. This may not always be the most loving approach.”

Bishop repeated that nothing anyone does can make them deserve a diagnosis of cancer. “Cases like this illustrate a larger truth about the tendency to try to derive meaning from our circumstances. Part of this man’s fate was determined by the relationship that our culture has had with cigarettes over this last century.”

He also stressed that we have a tendency to impose a narrative on our circumstances; this is often the only way we can make sense of a difficult situation. Others may “make sense” of the smoker’s situation by reducing him to his smoking habit; Bishop stressed that processing the situations of others in this way can make it harder to love those suffering.

Bishop gave another example of a patient through which love was brought despite severe pain. A woman reported severe headaches to her doctor; the CAT scans showed a mass in her lungs and in her brain.

It was explained that communicating with her was a challenge, as a previous stroke severely impaired the left side of her brain. For the most part, her husband had to communicate on her behalf.

Bishop recounted, “I asked this woman how long she and her husband had been married. She beamed with pride and she answered: ten. Her husband smiled and said ‘No… you know that’s not right… 50 years.’ He told me, like he could not conceive a finer achievement.”

When Bishop told them that she had stage four cancer, it came as a shock. Yet there was a glimpse of great beauty in this couple’s pain.  

“Five decades together and it was not difficult for them to find each other in that moment without my presence making a bit of difference. I’ve had to tell many other people this type of news, and there was a big difference that time.”

This woman turned to her husband, who was sobbing. She cried too, but the depth of her pains stemmed from the fact that her own death would tear a void in her husband’s heart. Bishop asked the woman: “You’re sadder for him more than you are for yourself, aren’t you/?”

“We never explored her worldview, we never talked about death or the possibility of an afterlife, but this visit has come back to my mind many time as one of the most profound demonstrations of love I have ever seen.” Bishop stated.

Pain often brings about miracles, but Bishop has never seen a miraculous reversal of a terminal diagnosis.

Rather, the miracles he sees are relational in nature. The healing of a torn family through the cancer process, the way children help the non-ill parent, “I would honestly consider that miraculous,” Bishop said.  

Pain has immense use and purpose, Bishop said. Pain brought about healing in dead families, it brought about inseparable love even in the faith of a couple destined to be separated by death. Even the mystery of the crucifixion has its genesis in pain. “The mystery of the crucifixion is one of the most profound superimpositions of love and pain that we have in history.”

“Hopefully the event of the crucifixion as an example of outwardly directed love […] can help us reframe and refine the pain we have in our own lives. Perhaps the presence of pain in our own lives is not so much the manifestation of our own choices, and not necessary a punishment for an imperfect nature.”

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