This reflection is the fifth in our Lenten series, “First-Person Faith.” Read more about the Collegeville Institute’s first-person approach to theological discourse in our introduction to the series.
In the summer of 2013, while feeling fine and minding my own business, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. To say the diagnosis came as a surprise would be an understatement. I had reluctantly agreed to a CT scan to rule out diverticulosis before having a colonoscopy to check for irritable bowel syndrome. The worse case scenario, I thought, would be a careful diet for a few months. Instead, I underwent surgery, then the implanting of two ports (one in my upper chest and one in the abdomen) to facilitate the delivery of an eighteen-week regimen of aggressive chemotherapy.
During chemo, I had a lot of time to think. I found myself pondering how and why we are so poorly equipped, as a culture and as the church, to deal with pain and suffering. Many people did wonderful things for me and my family—delivered food, shuttled me to and from the hospital, sent notes, called, offered prayer. My family and I clung to these supports as major lifelines. But on the psychological level—in the arena of emotions and theology—I sometimes felt misunderstood or labeled, occasionally blamed, and often alone.
I wish I had a quarter for every person who mentioned the importance of a positive attitude. I kept a mental checklist, and when someone talked to me about having the correct frame of mind, I added their name to my Do Not Trust column. For these people I smiled, and when asked “How are you?” said, “Fine.” I worked at translating their admonitions into love, because I knew they cared. I also knew that their telling me to have a positive attitude was about their need not to hear too much or know too much. These are the same people who only weeks after my chemo ended would say, with a falsely upbeat voice, “Well, that’s behind you now.”
Then there were the host of people who immediately told me of the one or two (or once even three!) people they had known with my diagnosis who had died. One dear man, only one week after I learned I had cancer, told me a long tale about a woman who had defied all her doctors and eked out five years before her inevitable death. Five years! There’s time, he said, while I shivered in despair.
Another common response was a list of what I could have done or should have done to prevent this: macrobiotic diet, exercising seven days a week, never eating meat, having regular checkups, not ignoring symptoms. Oh, and did I breastfeed? Did I eat blueberries? Almonds? Did I ever smoke? What about alcohol? Stress! Did I allow myself to be overly anxious?
I recognized these responses and their roots in fear because when I was part of the blissful and unaware well, I said the same things. Only during chemo did I think about the silent sufferers in our congregation: the woman whose husband is an alcoholic, the man who lives with PTSD, the elderly woman whose children abandoned her, the young mother whose husband has mental health issues, and the list goes on. None of these people talk openly about their situations. Sitting within my cancer diagnosis, realizing that some people do not know how or simply cannot be with you in hard circumstances without judgment or some distancing device to assure themselves that THIS could never happen to them, I better understood the choice for silence.
The irony, of course, is that everyone suffers. No one escapes loss or dying. The way we talk about illness and death might lead you to think that the end of a life is the ultimate failure, instead of the natural process we, in our better natures, know it to be. Our insistence on denial, positivity and silence reinforces the insidious idea that we are loved only when we are whole. We in the church know better. Yet, it wasn’t until I was forced to see myself blemished and undeniably broken that I realized how deeply I long for human manifestations of unconditional love.
I am learning to see myself as a beloved child of God living with a cancer diagnosis. I am grateful for those who can accompany me into the desert places. A cancer survivor told me that one day I would be able to say I am grateful for this experience. Well. Not yet. But my eyes and my heart have been opened in a new way, and I hope to never close them again.