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A Cancer Scientist's Personal Journey of Faith
An eminent scientist expresses his awe of a personal God who has helped him through the tough times and storms in his life.

Dr. Victor Ling is a B.C. cancer researcher (please see his bio at the end of this article). The following is from a talk Ling gave at the B.C. Prayer Breakfast in Vancouver, October 2004.

I have been a cancer scientist all my professional life. I live in two different worlds. In my scientific world my days are filled with eager graduate students, brilliant scientists and learned professionals—all wanting to make earth-shattering discoveries. In the other world that I live in, I meet cancer patients—who are facing for the first time the knowledge that their life on earth is limited.

A Cancer Scientist's Personal Journey of Faith
Victor Ling

Valuable lesson

Many yeas ago as a young scientist at the Princess Margaret in Toronto, I learned a valuable lesson—that fighting cancer is not just limited to the world of test tubes, molecules and miracle drugs. It must also be fought at another level.

I was in an elevator when a patient pushing an IV pole got on. We were the only two people in the elevator. She looked at me and said, not unkindly, "I hate you. You have a full head of hair, and I have lost all mine." I was wearing my hair long at the time—not to be fashionable, but I simply did not have time to get a haircut.

I felt embarrassed, not knowing what to say. After all, I was a molecular biologist—not a counsellor or therapist. But before she left the elevator, I managed to blurt out: "What are you complaining about? The fact that you have lost all your hair shows that chemotherapy is probably working. If it's killing you hair follicles, it's probably killing your cancer cells too."

She looked at me and smiled. "Thank you," she said, "you have made my day." That little bit of knowledge changed her entire perspective on her problem. It's not about the hair, it's about her life.

I have been asked if it is possible for a scientist to believe in a personal God, as described in the Bible. You know, someone who actually takes an interest in our individual lives. Some have suggested that it would be a contradiction—that science is dependent on scientific knowledge, on experiments and discoveries, on facts that can be proven and tested; whereas, a belief in a personal God depends on blind faith.

Santa Jesus

I have struggled with this question myself. I grew up in a Christian home, and was taught Christian values. As a kid, I thought of Jesus as a kind, warm, fatherly figure, a little bit like a Santa Claus. I would pray and ask Him for things, but usually nothing happened.

When I got older, I was wrapped up with my fascination with science, and began to doubt the relevance of God in my life.

However, one rainy day when I was in second year university in Toronto, I dropped into a noon hour lecture on campus given by Paul Little. I did this to get out of the rain, and to eat my brown bag lunch.

I remember Little saying that Jesus Christ was a real historical figure, universally acknowledged as a highly moral man, a person of impeccable integrity, a person no one could find real fault with. He was a person who was in complete control of Himself and of any situation that He faced. I thought to myself, yes, I agree with that—so what else is new? Little then went on and said Jesus made an astonishing claim: He claimed to be God.

That comment stunned me. I never thought of Jesus in that way before.

Little went on to say that if Jesus walked through the door today and said to you, "I am God," what would be your reaction? You have only two choices: you might think that He was a lunatic and just laugh at Him; however, if you believe that He was a highly sane and moral person, then your only other choice is to fall to your knees and accept Him as your God.

That little knowledge changed my entire perspective on life. Life is not all about me, it's about Him!


I thought to myself: "Wow! Jesus, you are my God, you are the creator of heaven and earth, you are the Supreme Being and yet you have the love to die for me, and to care about me—wow!"

After that day, life became different for me. Science now made even more sense to me; my perspective changed. I was studying the mind of Jesus, the creator; it was fun trying to figure how He thought, how He did it. He is a God of reason and logic, not one of chaos and confusion.

John chapter 1, which was previously confusing to me, became clear. I realized that Jesus was God. "In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through Him. He became flesh and made His dwelling amongst us."

Jesus is the Word—creator and inventor of all things in the universe. When He changed water into wine in His first miracle, it was not a magician's trick. There was no need for fanfare. He quietly changed the simple molecule H20 into something very complex and exquisite, into an excellent wine. The Bible recorded that it was not a cheap wine, and that He made 120 gallons of it. I really want to know how He did it.

Once I asked a group of teenagers: if scientists were able to create life in a test tube, would that prove that God does not exist? Some thought it would, since they felt that people would not be able to create life—only God can.

Their reaction troubled me. I thought that if I went to the local Radio Shack store, and bought some crystals and components, and built a radio, would I have created a radio? Would that prove that Marconi, the inventor of the radio, never existed?

I think not! In fact, I think it really proves the opposite: that the radio had an inventor. I was able to copy the inventor's recipe to build his invention; and the invention did not come together by chance, because there is logic to it that I can understand.

Evidence of God

I was intrigued when I read in The Vancouver Sun that Anthony Flew—a British philosopher, and the most prominent atheist of our time—had declared that he now believes that there is a God, because of the overwhelming evidence of the complexity of biological life as revealed by modern science. He said biologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce [life], that intelligence must have been involved."

… knowledge of a personal God has really helped me over the tough times …

Dr. Marco Marra, director of the Cancer Agency's Genome Sciences Centre tells me that each of us is made up of approximately 50 trillion cells, and that each cell contains about two metres of DNA—the material that encodes the genes, that makes us what we are. The amount of DNA in every one of us is sufficient to stretch between the earth and the sun about 1,000 times. Please remember that the distance between the earth and the sun is about 100 million miles. My mind boggles when I think about these facts; and to top it all off, all this DNA in our body is coordinated—so that we are alive! So that you are here now! Whoever invented this system is a pretty awesome scientist!

The knowledge of a personal God has really helped me over the tough times—the storms of my life.

When my eldest sister, Grace, was dying from metastatic breast cancer in the hospital where I was working, some people thought that—as a pre-eminent cancer scientist—surely I would know of some special treatment for my own sister. I had nothing of this sort. She died at the age of 45, a psychiatrist, and a mother to five young children.

I know that cancer has touched the life of everyone in this room. As a community, how we deal with cancer is a metaphor for how we deal with any intractable problem in life. Do we face the problem squarely and tackle it? Or do we simply flip a coin and hope for the best? The choice is up to us.

Victor Ling is department head of the cancer genetics section at the B.C. Cancer Research Centre in Vancouver, and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of B.C. Among other things, he has been awarded the General Motors Kettering prize for cancer research, and the Order of British Columbia.

Originally published in B.C. Christian News, July 2005.




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