Cancer and Character Development

Suffering has allowed me to empathize with the suffering of others more deeply.  This new level of compassion is both heart-breaking and life-giving in equal measure.  I am grateful.

I occasionally get questions that at first glance may seem impertinent or insensitive when posed to a person with Stage 4 cancer.  But I am not startled or offended.  Afterall, I write unreservedly in my blog about my mortality, and, most gratifyingly, my friends ask questions out of genuine concern and a desire to understand more fully what I am going through.

Recently, a close friend asked:

“Dona, you ever wish that you had died suddenly from an accident or heart attack instead of going through these years of suffering, not knowing when the medical team has no more resources to keep you alive?”

An insightful question I have been pondering ever since. 

There was a time when I would have said absolutely, I would rather die suddenly than go through cancer treatments. After all, what other illness fills us with dread as we wonder about lumps, difficulty swallowing, or unrelenting back pain?

Another friend, a physician, told me about a patient that showed up at his medical practice with grave concerns about a skin condition. The doctor’s diagnosis was chronic, severe psoriasis. He told his patient the condition would cause pain, discomfort, interfere with sleep, and make it difficult to concentrate. There would be no cure. The patient relied, “Thank God it’s not cancer!”

We do not walk around fearing heart attacks, gallbladder attacks, car accidents, lupus, or sundry illnesses that can be very devastating and even fatal. It is cancer that fills us with fear. Within literature or human discourse there is no other disease used as a personifier of something malignant, evil, or spreading. (“Bitterness grew like a cancer until it consumed her.” “His hunger for power was a cancer that could not be stopped until he destroyed everyone in his way.”) We use the word cancer because it is a word loaded with all kinds of imagined suffering and dread of when and how it will take our lives. And unlike the animal kingdom we humans have existential angst and future awareness, realizing we are mortal and will leave behind loved ones, future dreams and plans and meaningful work.

Getting back to my friend’s question……

Early on when I discovered I had metastatic breast cancer I wrote a blog post titled “I like the new metastatic me.” It had nothing to do with being masochistic or pathological.  It had all to do with welcoming the change of perspective on what was, and what was not, important in life.  Consequently, I found a greater peace of mind because I had less things that I was holding onto and less to become anxious about. The new metastatic me simplified life and found me focusing on joy and gratefulness.

Although my cancer had progressed from Stage 3 to Stage 4, I was happy to find that my character development had moved from stage 1 to stage 2.  Well, maybe Stage 0.5 to Stage 1.

That was then, this is now.  In the last four years there certainly has been more suffering than I would have anticipated when I was first diagnosed with metastatic cancer.  But I can say with confidence that after 4-5 years of living with this awful disease that I’m thankful I was not taken suddenly.

I am more others-centered now than 4 years ago. My character development has moved from stage 2 to stage 3. Well, maybe 1 to 2. You get my intent. I am trying to walk the line between braggadocios and false humility. The point is that I have more empathy and heart sickness when I hear of others suffering, whether from the terror-stricken children of Ukraine, the starving children of Somalia, or the grieving parent of a loss child or husband. I used to avoid reading BBC international news (I have an app). Too much tragedy. Now, I read and pray because it disrupts my own suffering and allows, what Mother Theresa called, “my heart to be broken with what breaks the heart of Christ.”

And this suffering somehow reminds me of the Great Hope.

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Romans 5:3-4

Before unpacking this, I must reiterate that the grace of God has been apparent every step away.  He deserves the credit and glory.   

Suffering can breed empathy:

When people are faced with a terrible diagnosis there is a choice that must be made. Will the rest of life be driven by bitterness and anger; resenting the unfairness? As I have heard on more than one occasion, “I took good care of myself: ate healthy, exercised frequently, managed stress, and even served God so how did this happen to me?”

As I noted above, there is an aspect of my chronic suffering that has bred empathy and compassion for those who suffer, whether from cancer, other ailments, heartbreaks, betrayals, extreme losses.  My prayer life has been richer and more spontaneous as I read the news or talk with people who are hurting. And for those times I forget I have cancer as I focus on them.

I do not know why suffering has produced empathy, but I have a couple of theories.

The God of the cross

We have a God that suffers with us.  The late John Stott, theologian and pastor of All Souls Church in London often said he could not worship a God who had not experienced extreme suffering.

“The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and, therefore, unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.”

I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross’. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?

John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 335-336

In summary, my metastatic cancer first gave me a new perspective on what, and what was not, important in life.  Consequently, I found a greater peace of mind because I had less things that I was holding onto and less to become anxious about. The new metastatic me simplified life and found me focusing on joy and gratefulness.

Second, suffering has allowed me to empathize with the suffering of others more deeply.  This new level of compassion is both heart-breaking and life-giving in equal measure.  I am grateful.

My character development has moved from Stage 1 to Stage 3!  Will I ever get to Stage 4?  Not in this earthly tent!

And this brings me, finally, to the point of all this.  The end result of suffering is not character development but hope.  (Romans 5:3-4)  Hope in what?  Eternal life and that time when Christ will “make all sad things untrue.”1  A cold, pitiless universe, full of random disease and tragedy, without God provides little or no incentive to develop character or hope. 

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

1 Corinthians 15:19

Yes, oh yes, I am thankful, suffering or no suffering, for every moment the Lord had graced me with!

1Originally spoken by Sam to Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Return of the King.  Often quoted by Tim Keller and NT Wright in their reflections on the resurrection.

2 thoughts on “Cancer and Character Development

  1. pollymccauley November 1, 2022 / 11:57 am

    Oh, Dona, this is heartbreakingly beautiful, and it is only someone who has gone through great suffering like you who can truly say these words and feel these emotions. You have a unique closeness to Jesus because of your mutual suffering. I pray that God is ever close, holding you through these difficult days and nights.
    I love you. Thank you for sharing your heart and soul.

  2. Anonymous November 1, 2022 / 6:53 pm

    Beautiful words from my beautiful friend…
    XOXO

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