Forgetting Cancer

For 6 months my invasive breast cancer was always before me. First, there was the diagnosis and the anxiety of waiting for various test results.  Then there was the mastectomy with the pain of the surgery and the discomfort of the lymph node drains.  Four months of chemo beset me with nausea, fatigue, and a compromised autoimmune system that at one point landed me in the hospital for three days.

Grim Realities Helped Me Forget Cancer

But when chemo was over I got a 3-week reprieve before radiation therapy. I was feeling pretty well; almost normal aside from the fact that I was missing a breast and had to decide each day which wig or scarf to wear to cover my hairless palette.  So I used the break to visit elderly parents in another state. David, my husband, had to return to Alaska for over a week to keep his business going so I was on my own as I scrambled frantically to “fix” my parents’ needs before I left to go back to Buffalo for radiation.    A combination of guilt, sadness and frustration with my limitations in fixing their limitations would begin the process of cancer-forgetfulness.

My parents, being house bound, watch a lot of TV……CNN, Dr. Phil, Judge Judy.   I normally keep up with news through radio and the web.  I was not used to seeing the CNN images of conflict, terror and extreme hardship from around the world.  As I tried to process the suffering of the Gaza and Israeli conflict, the ISIS reign of terror, and Ebola crisis in West Africa I was unconsciously strengthening the process of cancer-forgetfulness.  Even watching Dr. Phil and Judge Judy every weekday with my folks provided distractions from my current health despite of my temptation to be critical of media exploitation of these human messes.

Now all this might sound a bit grim.  There I was dealing with cancer treatment yet distracting myself with morbidity and tragedy. But I could not allow my situation to keep my head in the sand about the tremendous suffering happening in this world.  If I did I was at risk.  My situation with its potential for corrosive self-absorption would end up robbing me of empathy for others. Now, I am not speaking to those who suffer severe pain or those in late stages of a terminal illness.   Nor am I writing about those in the midst of anguished grief for the recent loss of a loved one. What I am addressing is the threat of self-absorption that can come from dealing with a serious health challenge, robbing of an identity other than the illness, itself.

Taking time to think helped me to forget cancer

There was  something else that was going on that aided my cancer-forgetfulness for those weeks; something upbeat and something I will need to continue whether I am  busy with obligations or not.  I took time to think in the midst of parent care.  Each morning before I hit the ground running I would find a quiet place in the home of my gracious hosts to read, pray, write and think. My thoughts were being reoriented to life’s meaning and purpose. The essential Christian doctrines of faith I held had to be thought through deeply if I was going to find the peace I was looking for.  God, Jesus, sin, human nature, salvation, the world and God’s plan for the world, hope, faith, love, and service to others were the grist for the mill of my soul’s peace. It always came down to, “Do I really believe what I believe?” and if so, “What’s the big sweat?”  God is in control and I can trust Him.   And eventually gratitude found its way into my thinking as I thought of family and friends that spanned the world who were not just blessing my life but blessing the lives of so many others.

(Tim Keller talks about this in his book, “Walking with God in Pain and Suffering”).

Being in awe of the sacrificial service of others helped me forget cancer

AsIDP CHILDREN IN NARUS_cropped I spent time thinking something else happened. I would read or hear stories about people who were doing extraordinary acts of service because of their compulsion to serve Christ.  Some of these people I knew through my Juneau church’s partnership with ministries abroad.   Pastor Saphano, the Sudanese pastor of a poor struggling church in southern Sudan, who manages to house and feed over 250 orphans and refugee children from the civil war.   Hannah who currently pastors a church in Amman, Jordan for Syrian and Iraqi refugees but once was the pastor of the Baptist church in Gaza.  He continues his ministry in Gaza (see an interview with Hanna here) by providing aid to hundreds of Gazans as well as most recently opening his home in Gaza to 100 frightened refugees of the Israeli/Hamas conflict.  David and I have stayed in that home and it is hard to imagine 100 people staying there. There are thousands of people like them who are servicing in lands of great conflict and suffering with sacrifice and love.  When I take the time to reflect on such things I begin to forget cancer.

Thinking more, not less, helped me forget cancer

I read or heard once that perhaps God commanded a day of rest (Sabbath) in the Ten Commandments because he knew that if humans were left to themselves they would never stop in their frenetic work to eke out an existence in order to think through the big questions of life. Taking time to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life will bring many back around to Him with a growing awareness of how life is meant to be understood and experienced.  This reflection cannot always be done perfectly, that is for sure, but nonetheless, this type of reflection builds an appreciation that this life is not all there is.  It is a reminder of the promise that He is with us through the tough and good stuff whether we feel it or not.

I am back in Buffalo now.  I’ll be reminded of my cancer every week day morning for the next 6 ½ weeks of radiation therapy.  But I can still practice the discipline of thinking about the big picture; making sure I find the time to remember who God is and who I am supposed to be with cancer or without.





No skimping on kindness during cancer treatment

I looked up and there she was. I was waiting for my big breakfast egg scramble at an outdoor café, excited that I was feeling energetic and had an appetite. I had walked from my apartment to my favorite breakfast place to eat and work on my latest blog.

I was finishing my blog post on body image as I waited to be served my breakfast.  As she sat at an empty table I could feel her eyes on me. My initial knee jerk response was not to make eye contact.  I sensed she would approach me for something maybe just conversation but I had my own agenda and it didn’t include a long conversation with anyone. I couldn’t resist so I quickly looked up and then returned my focus back to the lap top faster than I could say egg scramble. Not sure but I thought we had actually met before in front of a laundry mat (a real talker – it takes one to know one) but I doubted she remembered me. She hangs out a lot on the street looking for approachable faces. Now, if this wasn’t bad enough on my part here’s where it gets really down and low. How I was behaving was a violation of one of my own recently acquired rules since becoming a city dweller. The rule: make sure eye contact is made and at least a few words are spoken to someone pan handling when responding to their request.  Why?  A few years ago while walking the streets of Jerusalem I was  reminded out of nowhere that people who panhandler or those sitting  against walls with blankets and change cups in tow were human beings, made in God’s image and deserving of dignity.  Furthermore, they were once children who didn’t have the ambition to become homeless or a pan handler when they grew up.  Like me and you and all 6 year olds they couldn’t conceive a future, regardless of how bad their childhood was, that excluded a dream of being a firefighter, teacher, nurse, shopkeeper, or professional basketball player.  I doubt that any of these adults on the street said to themselves at 6-years old, “When I grow up I hope to wear tattered clothes, be alone and ask people for money as my daily routine.”  So, from that time on I determined that I wouldn’t just place money in a bag or hand without making eye contact and saying something. It’s not as easy as you would think. Folks experiencing homelessness are accustomed to thinking of themselves as nobodies. They know we are uncomfortable with their circumstances and they are counting on us to relieve a little of our own guilt.  Just drop it in or hand it out and keep moving; that’s all that is expected in this street drama of the haves and the have not’s.

Well, back to me – My breakfast came and I don’t know if was the size of it or the presentation of it; but staring at it I was immediately overwhelmed by my privilege and plenty.  I then knew what I wanted to do and it wasn’t out of guilt. I wanted to invite her to join me and share my breakfast or order her own. I looked up. She was gone. I waited hoping she would return but she didn’t.  I finally ate disappointed and a little dejected for a missed opportunity for both of us.  Interesting that I felt disappointed and dejected; emotions that are likely standard fare for my would-be eating partner.

For parents, grandparents or anyone who have opportunity to influence children for goodness and kindness please read the following article: A Mom’s Hope for a Better World.  Full of interesting statistics, good insights and practical suggestions, this mom does a great job of looking at the world and ‘bringing it home.’