“If you have your health you have everything.”
I have heard this refrain many times in my life, especially from Italian American relatives. Maybe it is an Italian American sentiment, but I suspect many people feel this way. How else can we explain a culture that is consumed with living better, longer, and more independently. Is not living with vim and vigor a prized and admired achievement? Are not many of us willing to put commitment, time and money into achieving our health goals through exercise, better nutritional choices, active recreational activities (baking, bowling and backgammon not qualifying), as well as keeping up with all recommended preventive health measures?
Good health is no doubt a great blessing, but it is also become a badge of honor to proudly display. “God bless you” is an expression that I find myself using when I meet old people who want to brag on their longevity and good health. This is odd. It makes more sense to pronounce God’s blessing on folks who sneeze. They might need a blessing to ward off sickness. Longevity with vibrant healthy living is certainly a gift from God but it is not a reward!
So how does this relate to cancer and shame?
Many cancer patients and those suffering from chronic illness struggle with a sense of stigma, guilt, or shame. Why should this be? Since diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer in 2014 and now dealing with metastatic cancer since December 2018, I had come to understand this feeling.
Two weeks ago I did not get a good scan report. I had been feeling relatively good, not vim-and-vigor good, but good enough to be positive as I waited for the report’s findings. My husband and I were therefore blindsided by the news (some liver tumor progression). The FNP was kindly trying to comfort me before the oncologist came in to discuss a new treatment option but I just wanted her to leave so I could comfort David, knowing he was distressed by the news.
“David I’m so sorry for you,” was, oddly, the first thing I said to him.
He kindly responded, “You shouldn’t feel sorry for me. I feel so badly for you.”
What was my apology about? After some self-examination I realized that I irrationally believed I had let him down and was the cause of his angst and worry. I also was reluctant to tell friends who were praying for me. Again, I felt like I was letting others down; that somehow, I did this to myself or that I was defected and not able to do my part in this battle against cancer. But worst of all I was dealing with the erroneous belief that God did not want to bless me in a way we were all hoping for because I was somehow unfit. I felt ashamed.
Shame and Shaming
Shame, according to Webster, is a ‘painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.’ It is an intensely difficult emotion. ‘Shaming’ is also a noun and is the act of subjecting someone to shame. And there is plenty of shaming in children’s and adults’ lives. Shaming arises from what we esteem in our culture: media-good looks, fit bodies, youth, material acquisitions, achievements, and correct opinions.
Yes, shaming is ubiquitous in parenting, marriages, health visits, social media, teaching, and among kids on playgrounds, middle and high schools.
In his early twenties, my husband taught science in a junior high school in North Carolina. Junior high is ground zero for shaming. No one is exempt. David humorously recalls one day when a student became upset with him.
“You are nothing but a big-nosed, baby teacher!” she shouted, storming out of his classroom.
That evening, David looked in a mirror, carefully examining his face.
“Darn, she is right! I do have a big nose.”
David is forever grateful this shaming occurred when he was 22 and not 12; allowing him enough maturity to process the revelation (kinda). But he admits that from that fateful day he has been forever conscious of his proboscis.
Personally, I like his nose. I was a bit bothered by the label, ‘baby-teacher.’ What was that about?
Getting back to cancer
I know that cancers start because of a mistake in copying DNA when normal cells are dividing and growing. Mainly, these mistakes just happen by chance. I remind myself of this over and over. And yet, doubt creeps in.
We have heard it said and perhaps said it ourselves, “He was diagnosed with cancer, but he was a smoker. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she was not doing breast exams on herself (that was me), or she ate a ton of junk food.” I could go on with the ‘buts’ and ‘victim shaming’. Fear and shame are intermingled with cancer. Without necessarily meaning to, we feel subtly critical of those stricken with cancer and comfort ourselves against the fear of cancer by looking at our wellness as doing it right. Then a cell mutates during replication and somehow finds a way to continue to replicate……..and we feel the sting of shame.
The shaming of Christ
“If you have your health you have everything” is shortsighted. We can have our health, live wonderfully well until 105 and not have everything. Everything includes the eternity we are destined for. 105 or 1005 years old is paltry in comparison. Our bodies and/or minds will someday fail us so now is the time to take stock of the purpose of human life as God-imagers, drawing our self esteem and identity from being beloved children of God. And most of all we are to take comfort and relief from trusting in the Christ who not only died for sins but also for our shame regardless of what cancer or culture tells us or what we tell ourselves because of shame from things we have done.
In fact, Jesus endured shaming himself.
We fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
To quote John Piper:
“Shame was stripping away every earthly support that Jesus had: his friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming mockery; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture. His glorious dignity gave way to the utterly undignified, degrading reflexes of grunting and groaning and screeching.”
And so, I work to move on, praying Psalm 25:1-3b:
In you, LORD my God, I put my trust. I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies (my self-image, the stigma of cancer, American perfectionism, Satan the accuser, or any worldly thing!) triumph over me. No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame.