Naren James, MD

Dr. Naren James was one of the founders of AMEN and served as its first president. He is a board certified family physician with over 25 years of experience in rural family medicine. Since recovering from a serious health challenge last year, Dr. James has committed himself to the practical implementation of AMEN’s mission through a nonprofit ministry he launched, the Center for Optimal Health.

From Tragedy to Triumph: One Physician’s Journey with Cancer

in Spring 2019   |
Published on 03/01/2019   |
10 min

As of this writing, I find myself in a hospital infusion center and receiving standard chemotherapy. I’m also thinking about the upcoming funeral services for Jim, a cancer patient whom I met during my treatments here. Nothing stemmed his bladder cancer, and during the Christmas holidays I found out that he was at home under the care of local hospice. Jim was only 60-years old, having battled the disease for over three years.

My own journey began in the spring of 2007, during my third and final year as the first AMEN president. Earlier that year I found myself reflecting on the amazing journey of AMEN’s inception. It all started with a luncheon at ASI in Cincinnati, Ohio, in August 2004 and was followed by a conversation with Pastor Mark Finley at the It Is Written partnership in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in December of that year. Pastor Finley expanded my limited vision of restoring the “Right Arm” to the larger vision of a self-supporting ministry owned and operated by SDA physicians and dentists.

The vision caught hold, and in the spring of 2005, at the Cohutta Springs Conference Center in Crandall, Georgia, after some powerful messages by Mark Finley about “Reviving the Right Arm” the Adventist Medical Evangelism Network (AMEN) was born.

As this was happening, I was experiencing my own spiritual revival. As I caught a vivid vision of God’s love for me, I was moved to make an offering to Him, and it became clear to me that everything I desired to give was already a gift from Him to begin with, and therefore not truly mine, anyway. I then realized that the only item in my life that is truly mine, still a gift from the Creator but the only irrevocable one, is my free will. So I handed Him my will to do with me as He desired. I also prayed for an expanded ministry and in reviewing the Scriptures I realized that many of the characters who had an expanded ministry invariably had an encounter with their own mortality, such as Joseph in Egypt, the Hebrew boys before the furnace, Daniel in the lions’ den, and Esther before the Persian king.

Then, about two weeks after my prayer, I had a bout of rectal bleeding followed by a colonoscopy, which confirmed Stage I colon cancer. This was followed by major surgery and a bout of standard chemotherapy. I was only 45-years-old with no lifestyle risk factors and no family history of colon cancer. How am I to understand why this happened? I know that God does not want us to suffer, but yes, sometimes He allows it to achieve the spiritual objective of a refined character and greater effectiveness in ministry now. The author of Hebrews speaks to this well:

“And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives.” – Hebrews 12:5-6

My recovery went well, and after about six weeks I resumed practice part-time. Within three to six months I was working full-time. My surgeon reassured me that if my CEA levels remained normal after two years, then the possibility of a cancer recurrence was very low. Amazingly, right at the two year mark my CEA was slightly elevated. A subsequent PET/CT revealed metabolic activity in my left lung base. The surgeon wanted me to biopsy the area and see an oncologist but I declined due to my poor experience with chemotherapy earlier. I sought treatment with an integrative physician and engaged in aggressive lifestyle intervention. Nevertheless, my CEA level continued to creep up, although I remained functional and active.

This was a true encounter with mortality. I knew I was likely going to die from this disease. My only recourse was to embrace the relationship with my Savior in preparation for eternity. So, I cut back on my work and expanded my devotional time in an active quest to know my Savior better and to entrust my future to Him.

Almost 10 years after my initial prayers in January 2007, followed by my initial diagnosis, in the summer of 2016, I found myself in a deep spiritual journey. This time I was reflecting on the message to the Laodicean church:

“Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.” – Revelation 3:17-18

I have always thought of this message as being for the church as a body. But now I became acutely aware that the message was for me, personally, the Laodicean. After much wrestling, I accepted the diagnosis of the Divine Physician and prayed for Him to implement His clinical recommendations in my life. I prayed for the gold refined by fire and the eye salve to see my true condition, as well as to see God as He is. Most importantly, I accepted His offer of the white raiment, which is His righteousness, to cover the filthy rags of my own righteousness.

A few months later I developed low back pain that worsened over time. A PET/CT scan confirmed advanced metastatic disease in the L2 paraspinal area and the left lung base. This resulted in a lengthy clinical journey of cyberknife radiation, immunotherapy, and spine surgery with insertion of hardware to stabilize my spine. All of this happened in 2017 while I was still trying to hold on to my practice.

Meanwhile, I was facing advanced, terminal Stage 4 cancer that manifested itself by worsening imaging and lab values, as well as a deterioration in my clinical condition, all with extreme suffering and pain. In a short time, I divested myself of my two rural health clinics and gave an option to the buyers to acquire my medical building. My entire life appeared to be crumbling before my very eyes. I became depressed, even suicidal, the only restraining factor was my knowledge that God was sovereign and still in control.

After everything else failed, I reluctantly accepted my oncologist’s recommendation to submit to standard chemotherapy—the last resort. After many infusions of very a toxic regimen with many horrific side effects, I experienced a clinical improvement reflected in my symptoms and validated by normalization of my CEA level and marked improvement in my PET/CT scans.

My oncologist called it “an above average response.” I call it a miracle!

As I reflect on my personal spiritual journey, which is so intertwined with the history of AMEN, I remain optimistic that our greatest achievements, both individually and as an organization, are still ahead. As free beings created in the image of God and after His likeness, we are endowed with the ability to envision how the prophetic Word is implemented, particularly the Three Angels’ messages of Revelation 14. We are called to revive the “Right Arm” so that it finds its rightful place in the proclamation of the Gospel. Until the synergy of the pastoral ministry with the medical ministry is established, the end time message will not have the full force needed to fulfill the prophetic injunction before us. And if we do not move forward with it then even the stones will cry out!

My sincere hope and prayer is that we come together and sincerely seek the power of the Holy Spirit to fulfill this Divine mandate given to us by the Great Physician.

Lessons learned from my journey

  1. Do not look around you. Your journey is uniquely yours. Just follow the Master.
  2. Search the Scriptures for the scriptural narrative for your circumstance and embrace it. By doing this you align yourself with truth.
  3. Embrace the example of the Master and rejoice in expectation for the reward the Lord has in store for you now and for eternity.
  4. Embrace eternal realities as being the only reality that matters in the end.
  5. You are not the center of the universe. God is engaged in a much more far reaching work than you and your very limited life.
  6. Give Him your will and He will fit you in that ideal spot in His overarching plan for His universe.
  7. In the end you are at your best, and most fulfilled, when you embrace His plan for you in the accomplishment of His overarching universal objective.
  8. Integrate the “Because You say so” principle into your perspective. Accept the word of God as the final arbitrator of truth.
  9. Be ever cognizant of your need to stay connected to the Master because we all have the potential to descend quickly from the spiritual high to the spiritual low.
  10. Life is not fair, so don’t agonize over that. Just look at Calvary. How fair is that? When we have accepted Christ,
    we have also joined Him in His overarching plan to vindicate His character and to restore for eternity the government of God.

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