The Power of Prayer – and Chemotherapy

A Jewish prayer book. (Photo: Getty Images)
A Jewish prayer book. (Photo: Getty Images)

‘Repair enzymes’ fix damaged DNA in cells. Talking to God can repair damaged souls.

When he was 8 years old, my son, Noah, a true-blue New York Yankees fan, visited his pediatrician for a physical exam before starting day camp. His doctor found a lump in his neck.

The evaluation began with a chest X-ray, which showed a mass; the CT scan confirmed a large lesion in his chest. As a physician, I prayed to God that it would be tuberculosis. Perhaps I was the only doctor ever to ask God to give his son tuberculosis. The biopsy revealed Hodgkin’s disease, a form of lymphoma, and I quickly began to pray for my son’s life. A deep, gut-penetrating fear seared through my body.

Tefillah is the Hebrew word for prayer. The Torah, also referred to as the Old Testament, begins with: “When God began to create.” And how did God create? With words. Genesis 1:3 “God said ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Genesis 1:26 “God said: ‘Let us make man in our image.’ ” Thus, we see that God used words to bring all that we know into existence.

For those who aren’t sure about God or don’t believe, as the recently deceased author and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote: “Who cared if there was really any Being to pray to? What mattered was the sense of giving thanks and praise, the feeling of a humble and grateful heart.” As God used the power of his words to create, we use the power of our words to connect with God through prayer.

A small walk-in closet in my bedroom became my private sanctuary for both prayer and crying, mostly loud, weeping wails. It felt good to release the pain and fear—the pain of being a physician who still couldn’t protect my only son from cancer; the fear that he would not survive.

I prayed for Noah every day. I believe everyone prays to the same God. He is like a diamond that reveals different facets to different faiths and people, at different times. Prayer is a wireless call to God; sometimes it’s a one-way conversation. God is listening but he may not always provide an immediate response. That is part of the process.

Chemotherapy, smart doctors and prayer saved my son. My private talks and my private yelling at God, however, saved me. I felt anger and betrayal. How could God let this happen to my son, my only son. I screamed at God and to him. The rants ended in my quiet prayers to God for Noah’s healing. These things came together to treat his Hodgkin’s disease. Chemotherapy alone, prayer alone . . . neither would have been enough.

As sunlight damages the cells in skin, souls are done in by the travails of everyday life. Prayers can be solitary, but prayers from a church, mosque or synagogue are from a community. There is strength and support when you pray as a congregation. You are not alone; you are with like-minded people and with God.

Early in my career, I worked with New York University’s Dr. George Teebor, who researched DNA repair mechanisms. When a carcinogen or radiation injures the DNA in cells, innate repair enzymes attempt to repair the damage. If this process fails, the cells may turn malignant. As DNA repair enzymes work to heal cellular damage, prayer can repair damaged souls.

In 2007, I listened to Rabbi Ken Stern’s High Holiday sermon at New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue. Rabbi Stern was a caring and compassionate teacher. From the pulpit he spoke about prayer, asking the congregation: “Is God listening? Does God hear our prayers? Do our prayers make a difference? If you want to win the lottery, you must first purchase a ticket. If you want God to answer your prayers, you must first pray.”

He went on: “God gave man free choice and free will. So God can direct, guide and help, but not control everything,” Rabbi Stern said. “Prayer is not a magic bullet; prayer has other purposes besides petition: It is meant to help us become better people through our encounters with God.”

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Dr. Kirk J. Zachary is a physician in New York City.

 

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