Stories that have nothing to do with cancer

Cancer metastasis tempts me to see all of life and relationships pivoting around the cancer diagnosis. If I’m not careful cancer becomes the only lens from which life is observed. It’s clearly understandable. Cancer demands attention. But as it turns out there is so much to life that cuts into the self-absorbed cancer life.

Story telling

I love stories; especially the real-life ones.
I love telling stories and not just stories about me and mine.
I love other people’s stories and draw awe, inspiration, humor, human pathos, delight and enjoyment from them as if they were mine.
I just don’t enjoy stories; I absolutely need them to keep me grounded and connected to people and to God.
Heroism, desperate need met by extraordinary compassion, grit and human feats of endurance, discovery, invention, sacrifice, visions, dreams, revelations and miracles are stories that I will tell if I have been privileged to know of them. I tell many, many, many stories.

A story of dear friends
india to usaAudra and Jeremy are adopting a Down syndrome 19-month-old – nicknamed Hank – who is in an orphanage in India. They have never adopted or fostered. Audra has never been in a foreign country other than Canada (that doesn’t count), but she could not be more fearless, committed and excited. Passionate love has taken hold of her. Before she was dissuaded by the adoption agency Audra was determined to foster Hank in India for 3 to 4 months until the last court hearing and all documents were in place for her to bring him home. Audra and Jeremy were undaunted by obstacles; even the challenges of leaving her other three children in the care of Jeremy, the Dad. This couple was propelled by extraordinary and extravagant love. They only knew love’s longing to take Hank out of the orphanage, care for him, and ultimately bring him home to be part of his new family and church community; each which await his arrival with joy and anticipation.

The Bad Math of Jesus

God as shepherd and us as his flock is a common motif in the Bible for describing God’s love and devotion for us.

This parable is one of my favorites for describing the extravagant love of God towards his children.

Matthew 18:12-14

Jesus said, “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them Jesus_the_Shepherd004wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

So, what is the big idea in this story? The extravagant love of Christ can look foolish, indulgent, and possibly even irresponsible at times.

Phillip Yancey has called this the ‘atrocious math’ of Jesus.

The shepherd leaves the 99 on a hill, not in a sheep pen or in the care of another shepherd. No! He leaves them on a hill, vulnerable and unprotected so that he can seek after the one sheep that has wandered away.

Does the shepherd not care about the 99 because his favorite sheep, Fluffy, is the one who wandered off? Of course not. There are no favorite sheep in this story. There’s no Fluffy or Nemo or Benji because this is not a story about animals. No one sheep is the hero in this story. The only hero is the shepherd who wants his sheep, all his sheep, home with him. And he will put himself and the other obedient 99 at risk in order to go after one foolish and wayward sheep to bring her home. The extravagant, sacrificial love of God is the big story here.

Audra and Jeremy’s love for a disabled child is today’s big story for me. But this love is extravagant and some including myself had wondered whether it is too extravagant. Extravagant, sacrificial love motivated by Jesus’s spirit and example is only thing that can explain it. And Audra and Jeremy would agree. They see it as a calling given by God of which they are delighted to follow for the rest of their lives.

Be inspired but more importantly respond to the calling of God to bring you home. And when you do don’t forget to be grateful and thank Him that his heart is bigger than his numerical calculations.

Name Your Tumor

Being known by name is significant and a comfort in the midst of difficulty.

Naming tumors is a real thing. And I don’t mean naming the specific type of cancer. No, these are pet names. Arnold, Terminator 1, Terminator 2, and disliked politicians are common tags assigned by cancer patients. Most people report that naming their tumor is an empowering exercise allowing them to wrestle back a little control from a bully.

Unfortunately for me, I would need a baby naming book in order to find names for all the little tumors that are floating around. Fortunately, I’m not attracted to the name-your-tumor game but I’m not judging those who are. Whatever helps cancer patients not feel so helpless is probably a good thing.

But I’m intrigued by the need to name a thing or person.  Assigning names, being referred to by names, labeling objects by names, Hello_my_name_is_sticker.svgand finding meaning in names fosters connection and intimacy to each other, our environment, and, apparently, our diseases. The importance of naming is found in both Testaments. Being named, having a name carries spiritual significance. God revealed his name to Moses.  Jesus was named Immanuel, ‘God with us.”  Both Peter and Paul were renamed by Jesus.

When I was first married, I complained to my husband that I wanted to hear my name spoken by him more often. Hearing my name by my beloved made me feel special to him and more connected. It capped off the special relationship we shared. No doubt he was initially perplexed by this marital complaint but happy to accommodate.

The following verses in the gospel of John at Christ’s resurrection are exceedingly meaningful and tender to me (emphasis mine):

John 20:15-16
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means ‘Teacher’).

Imagine her relief, her love, her comfort to hear her name spoken by the Lord at such a time.  It’s an image that carries me through this harrowing medical ordeal. Imagining the Lord of the universe saying,

Dona, I’m here with you.”
Dona, I’ve got this, don’t be afraid.”
Dona, you will be with me forever.”

I don’t feel a need to name a tumor or tumors to feel more empowered or in control. He knows and calls me by my name. That is enough. That is everything.

From FOMO to JOMO

What cancer has taught me about the joy of missing out (JOMO)

dog restingAs it turns out an antidote for the subject of my most recent post, FOMO (fearing of missing out), is JOMO (joy of missing out). JOMO is basically saying “no” to the push to stay busy and connected with whatever presents itself in order to say more ‘yeses’ to activities that are more in-line with our values and interests. Many are jumping on the JOMO wagon. Productivity gurus are incorporating JOMO in their training. Stressed out working moms have self-help books to achieve JOMO. CEOs are trying to find balance and enjoyment within the pressures of fierce business competition. It’s all part of a new cultural phenomenon – searching for peace and joy within a world of relentless busy-ness, competition, and high expectations.

At first blush the acronym, JOMO, seemed forced and naive to me; but then I realized that it was exactly what David, my husband, and I were attempting to do since my diagnosis of stage-4 cancer. Doubling down on the present and embracing joy is integral to the 3-part strategy my husband and I developed to cope and grow.

1. Pursue the best possible treatments for the best possible outcomes.
2. Double down on the present. Experience joy where we can find it.
3. Think deeply about eternity.

I highly recommend you read his post, For Whom the Bell Does Not Toll: Stage 4 cancer patients have another definition for victory.

And there is evidence that we are doing just that. Laughter has always been coveted in our relationship but there is now more of it as we appreciate grandson antics and their hilarious comments. There is more laughter as we look for the amusing in ourselves and others; reminding ourselves to not take ourselves too seriously. There is more laughter as we retell shared funny experiences. There is joy as we actively pursue our passion to see marginalized people treated with God-given dignity and value. There is joy as we worship in church. There is joy as we enjoy the natural beauty around our creek cabin. There is joy of family and friends. There is so much joy and delight in our lives that we’ve been blessed with. We are grateful. But ….

• This is easier to do if I’m not in pain
• This is easier to do when I have had some distance from a disappointing oncology appointment.
• This is easier to do because it is my story and not a loved one’s.

In other words, there is within the JOMO movement a limitation. There is an exclusion clause, unspoken but nonetheless imbedded in its good intentions. Stopping to smell the roses sometimes leads to being stung. Being stung too many times can lead to anaphylaxis. Smelling a rose must give way to getting help to breathe. There are life experiences that leave us limping along, breathless from the sheer pain and exhaustion of life’s journey. Sometimes I feel like that. JOMO becomes elusive at best and downright annoying at worst. And so I cry. (See: More on finding comfort from God.)

It’s here that the 3rd part of our strategy takes dominance over the “doubling down on the present.“ Thinking frequently and intentionally about eternal life with the God who loves me is fundamental to any nod of acceptance and significance that I give to JOMO.
“So Heavenly-minded that a person is no earthly good” is not born out in the course of my life nor for countless others. It’s quite the opposite: becoming more heavenly-minded has prompted the Jesus-committed to do what can be done to effect positive change in this world while at the same realizing that Christ will ultimately set all things right. And some have made great sacrifices to that end.

But what about the fear of missing out on all the beauty and companionship of this world?

flowering dogwoods texasMany years ago, my two young daughters and I were riding our bikes together in our neighborhood. The balmy gentle breeze of a Virginia springtime with its blooming azaleas and dogwoods, greening weeping willows, and scented pine and magnolia underscored the laughter of my girls. I was filled with an inexpressible Joy. I remember silently thanking God while at the same time bemoaning that it wasn’t going to be ours for long. A transfer to another location in the country was imminent.

I longed for permanence in beauty and perfection. It was then that I realized for the first time that the aroma of magnolias and the music of a child’s laughter were only clues and hints of glory – not yet fulfilled nor meant to be. He has placed “eternity in our hearts”. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) The permanent, perfect, and pure in love and beauty would my inheritance. I think I can wait. Lord, help me wait.

‘Death Cafes’ and Me

Death Cafes” are springing up in cities throughout the world to address the subject of death and how-to live with death’s inevitably.

Apparently, the movement was started to give people a “safe place” to talk about death without being accused of morbidity. Billed as a philosophical inquiry on mortality, people looking for a grief support group will be disappointed. “Eat cake, drink tea and discuss death”, is the benign motto. The decor includes mugs, teacups and posters with creepy skulls, skeletons, and ravens painted on them. I admit that I’m put off by the skull mugs in the Death Cafes. death mug

But these venues and discussion groups deserve more than half a point. The vast majority of Americans live in the mythical state of immortality. ‘Mythical immortality’ (my term) is the belief that other people die, I don’t. (See, ‘I Like the New Metastatic Me’) When we do think about death it is in the context of avoiding it. Anne Patchett writes:

“The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it is exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality……Despite our best intentions, it (death) is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.” 1


Death cafes, though they deal with an inevitability ignored by most, do not capture rightly the travesty of death or the Christian hope of triumph over it.


The point of Death Cafes is to make death less fearful in an age of anxiety. I get it.  But the death mug approach to the subject does not capture the travesty of death. I say travesty because the Bible makes it clear that death is an enemy that is finally destroyed with the coming of the new heavens and earth at the culmination of time. And that is where the Christian hope comes in. The story is not over with our deaths. There is the hope that Christ ushers us into his glorious presence where every tear is wiped away and grand reunions are still to come. So maybe what I could benefit from would be a café whose moniker is “death does not have the last word”. A safe place where my faith tradition is shared with others so that I hear stories about people who have died well within the confidence of being on the threshold of an eternal reality. Granted my death café sounds a bit exclusive as it would possibly not be very attractive to secularists or folks from other faith traditions; but at the end of the day, with facing my own mortality I want to hear a café filled with conversations about hope, faith, courage, love and forgiveness. I want to hear and talk about Jesus. I want to live life in the moment with increasing gratitude. Hearing stories about people who lived well up to the moment of their deaths is my cup of tea and I will happily eat some cake while doing so.

 

  1.  Ann Patchett, “Scared Senseless,” The New York Times Magazine, October 20, 2002.

Intimate News

I made an unusual request of my oncology team. I told them that when I returned the following week to hear the results of the radiologist report and the status of cancer progression, I wanted them to tell David first. I would be in the waiting room to hear from him. He Patient to doctorwould sit with me and go over the results.  We might pray together, then we would go the clinic room together to have the results further explained by the team and have our questions answered.

Weird, cowardly, childish, weak, faithless, avoidant, dramatic, insensitive to my husband by putting him in this position? All those descriptors passed through my mind as the day approached. On the actual day, I decided to forget the elaborate scheme and face up to the news without preamble. But my husband gave me a word picture that took away the shame.

“Dona, you are going to have to eat the whole sandwich (the radiologist’s report) at some point but how you want it presented – open-faced, garnished, toasted – is completely up to you. You’re the one going through this. Do it the way that makes it most tolerable.”

And my team completely understood, or at least acted like they did.  As my lead doctor said,

“Dona is the one with cancer, not me.  We do it her way.”

Intimacy

So, what was going on, aside from fear? It is intimacy and trust – intimate knowledge coming through my most trusted person. I wanted news from the person whose life would be most affected by this personal and significant information and from the person who knows me better and loves me more than any other.

An example from a long-ago happy event:
Who was the first person I told when i discovered I was pregnant? Life changing information that only made sense to share with the person most invested in our lives together. And whose lives would change dramatically as a result? Mine and his.
Again, intimate personal information shared within the most intimate of relationships. It’s really (in my mind) not so different from news about a disease notorious for causing pain, disability and death. I wanted to hear it from my husband no matter what it was.
But fortunately, intimacy doesn’t stop there.

Intimacy with God

David’s intimate relationship with God was ultimately what I was counting on in anticipation of hearing news related to my survival. If the scan and test results were disappointing, then I trusted David to tell me the facts along with the crucial caveats and realistic encouragements that would calm my fears and reorient me once again to the hope I profess in Jesus in all and every circumstance of life. I imagined praying together in those moments – intimacy with God would always and forever be at the heart of my life’s purpose and hope, even in life’s major disappointments.

The obvious

What if there was no husband or one that was willing to participate in my plan? Or what if there wasn’t a substitute like a trusted pastor or friend who could lead me to “the shepherd of my soul”?  Would I have fallen apart? Fallen into a pit of despair of which I couldn’t climb out?

I don’t imagine so. And here’s why:  Betsy Ten Boom who died at Ravensbrück for her participation in hiding Dutch Jews during WW2 said,

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

I cling to that with gratitude.

Thankful Postscript
My test results were encouraging: “Skeletal cancer stable, metastatic liver disease showed marked improvement.”

Of course, this begs the question, would I write this same post if the news was not good? I hope so, I pray so. Again,

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”


 





 

 

Scans: It’s that time again :(

Medical scans make known the presence of disease. That can be terrifying. But there is another kind of knowledge.

ct scanIt’s that time again. I have metastatic breast cancer and so every 3-5 months I have nuclear imaging (bone scan) and a CT scan (vital organs) to determine whether the cancer has progressed. I had the dreaded scans a few days ago and now I await my appointment with the oncology team to review the results.

The whole ordeal feels like entering enemy territory without defenses. My peace is rattled as I sense a power and authority to direct the course of my life. But this is ridiculous. Scans have no power and authority. They are not an enemy. Scans are, essentially, objective knowledge; knowledge of the presence of disease. Scans are a kind of friend but a friend I don’t like or trust to make me feel good. I want friends to tell me what I want to hear. Scans tell it like it is. There is no sugar coating the truth of my physical innards. They may or may not reveal a need for surgery, chemicals and/or radiation to eradicate the sometimes-silent killers – the terrorist cells of the inner space. They can reveal news of intractable corruption and devastation that medical science is powerless to stop. Who wants friends like these? I don’t but yes, I do, but not really. Yes, really, I do. (Terrifying ambivalence!) What to do with such a truth-telling no-holds-barred friend? How am I to get a good night’s sleep the day before such a “friend” encounter? How do I calm down a nervous system that has been designed to be alert to threat? How do I calm the raging mind storm as the machines move up and down the body exposing and objectifying me as they take pictures of bones and organs?

Spiritual application:
In the New Testament the word of God is described as a type of scan – a scan of the heart and soul. And it’s that scan that I truly need to pay attention to. God’s in charge and I am his charge.

“For the Word that God speaks is alive and full of power [making it active, operative, energizing, and effective]; it is sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating to the dividing line of the breath of life (soul) and [the immortal] spirit, and of joints and marrow [of the deepest parts of our nature], exposing {and} sifting {and} analyzing {and} judging the very thoughts and purposes of the heart.”
Hebrews 4:12

There are two types of scans that I have agreed to submit to. They both have authority over me. They both have knowledge of me. But as Lord Byron wrote long ago, “The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.”
According to Nicky Gumble of Holy Trinity Brompton in London there are different types of knowledge, and they are not all equally valuable. In French, there are two different words for ‘to know’. One (savoir) means to know a fact, the other (connaître) means to know a person. It is never enough simply to have knowledge of facts. To love a person, one must ‘know’ the person. Love resides in the ‘Who’ not the ‘What.’

Medical technology scans have authority in diagnosis that exceed my own, my doctors, my loved ones – anyone. They have a knowledge that transcends blood tests and feeling states. Scans are designed to guide a path of medical intervention. They don’t cause the problem; they expose the problems so that wise decisions can be analyzed and recommended.

But scans offer no hint to a meaningful existence beyond the body. Medical scans do not reveal corruption of the soul and a cure for it. Scans give no promise of redemption nor power for resurrection. Scans offer no love. And they certainly can’t inspire awesome wonder and respect. Christ fulfills all that and more.

So, this Thursday the door of the consultation room will open, my team will walk in, and my senses will be as alert as a gazelle listening for the approach of a lion. I will be comforted and loved by the faithful husband next to me, and by a medical team who truly care for me. And in that room the Holy Spirit (the Counselor, Comforter and Friend) will be present whether I sense His presence or not. I am known! I am loved! I will be ultimately loved and comforted no matter what

The Universe, God and cancer

VISTA’s look at the Helix NebulaThe heavens declare the glory of God……

Psalm 19:1a

Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum theory, is most famous for his uncertainty principle. He once succinctly underscored the experience of many scientists who have tried to fit faith, scientific observation, and reason together. He said:

“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

My Late Arrival to the Natural Sciences

I have had intense curiosity about human nature most of my adult life. As a mental health clinician for many years, it only stands to reason that I should want to understand the psyche. But my husband is perplexed by my very, very late-developed, almost childlike, curiosity for the natural world.

First it was biology:

• how and why have dogs evolved to love us, or
• what purpose a may fly has that never eats, only mates and dies within 24 hours.

Then it was classical (Newtonian) physics and mechanics:

• how a bridge is suspended, or
• how hydraulic oil can multiply force.

Since diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer my obsession with the cosmos has taken center stage. I binge watch any science of the universe series I come across. I read just enough to make me an expert. I think about astrophysics. I talk in small numbers: 1 x 10-34 (the time between true creation and the Big Bang), and large numbers: the diameter of the universe (45,600,000,000 light-years – maybe – since it depends in part on where the observer is located. Call me, I’ll explain it to you.)

I have discovered, as the late Emily Levine said of herself,

“I have the ability to perfectly understand all science……. except, of course, the actual science, which is math.”

Hyperbole? Of course. I know little but there is no denying my mind soars when I think about string theory, dark matter and energy, space-time continuum. My curiosity about the cosmos, however elementary and void of a grand scientific intellect, is nonetheless, real joy.

But Why Now?

“But, why now?”, asks my husband as he sits mostly still through my retelling of each episode of “One Strange Rock.”

I would think the answer is obvious: facing my mortality brings the big life questions into deeper reflection and investigation. Is there a creator? Is God really there for me in a life to come? “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” writes Paul in a letter to Corinthian Christians.

I have lived most of my Christian life focusing on being his follower in the here and now. I have seen the evidence of God’s existence in the forgiveness I have received and experienced through the Christ who sacrificed himself for me. I have been the recipient of love and continue to be the recipient of love from others. I have felt the prayers and gracious kindness of so many that gratefulness has been more acutely experienced than ever before. I have seen and heard of lives transformed throughout the world by the Gospel, mine included.

It’s all there but I’m anticipating venturing into unknown territory. Thankfully Christ came, died and rose from the dead, and in doing so leads us out of death into a new kind of life. But the reality of living this Christian life is that I live it in community; dying is facing God alone. That can be a terrifying thought. If it isn’t, it should be. So, by looking at creation, particularly infinite creation (cosmos), I’m looking at the character, in part, of the Creator. And I am comforted by what I’m seeing.

Watching the Trailer

But my husband was still not completely convinced. “Dona, most people, maybe even all people, in your situation do not spend their time trying to understand Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. (See footnote below.) That is certain.”

David asked me to write about my obsession, believing the “Clarity of Ink” would bring more insight. And, he was right. I discovered my new interest in science is not just for reassurance (God are you out there?) but also for anticipation.

hargbhorseheadflame-final-image

Yes, God loves us beyond our comprehension but the one who loves us is also holy beyond our comprehension, powerful beyond our comprehension, infinitely mysterious and awesome beyond our comprehension. These thoughts are terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time. Entertaining my curiosity about God and the cosmos is building up the exhilaration of meeting the creator of the cosmos. My recent efforts to understand what I can about the Big Bang, quantum theory, and space-time is akin to a desire to watch the trailer for a highly anticipated movie; a taste of the wine from the vintage bottle.

The Creator is pleased with our curiosity. The abundant life that Christ said is ours as we believe in him is in process. What is joyous here should be exponentially more satisfying and thrilling in heaven.

I am learning and seeking answers that the cosmologist heavy weights are discovering. And my longing to know more and to be capable of knowing more will be increasingly fulfilled as I someday delight in a glorious awe-inspiring eternal discovery field trip.

I don’t suspect that in heaven I will spontaneously know all things. I hope not. I’m counting on joining the throngs who are forever learning more and more of the infinite mysteries and wonders of the Trinitarian God. Meanwhile, I will indulge my curiosity as far as it will take me in the here and now; trusting that it’s only the paltry beginning of something unimaginably beautiful and wonderful to come.


Footnote: In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, also known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously. (Easy-peasey!)

Does facing incurable cancer scare the hell out of you?

I’ve always been interested in theological discussions and debates concerning the nature of hell among evangelical theologians. I have my “hard and fast” opinions about this serious matter but that won’t be the topic of this post. Sorry, for anyone out there who thought this was going to be a very provocative diatribe from an untrained non-seminarian theologian who admits to having strong opinions that she’s accustomed to changing. If you are interested, a report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE) called ‘The Nature of Hell’ outlines the differing opinions in clear and concise language.

Philosophical thoughts about cancer and mortality are frequent speculations. Recently, I looked for studies about what people with incurable cancer thought about hell. My cursory search didn’t turn up much, but I did come across a website for people voicing their thoughts about their diagnosis of terminal cancer. Hell was not a major topic, but one comment written over a year ago was difficult to read and generated a lot of responses from other sufferers. The commenter began with the following, “I have been told that I have 4 months to live and I am so afraid I am going to hell.” The responses were quick, empathic, and supportive. This woman’s heart-wrenching, brutally honest attempt to explain why she was in this frame of mind included her offenses to her family and specifically to her young daughter since her diagnosis. She felt conviction over the mess she had made of her life before diagnosis. But the real source of her anguish was the angry lashing out and jealousy towards healthy family members and friends.

I was moved by two observations. The first observation was the compassion extended by terminally ill responders who were compelled to try to make this woman feel better. Why were these fellow sufferers so compelled to help? Speaking from my own experience, there seems to be enough suffering to the illness as well as the grief of anticipated losses without added dread of future condemnation and alienation. That is unbearable. Like the others I was touched and wanted her to be at peace.

The second observation concerned the content of the responses. They ranged from:

1. On one end, “Forget about it, hell is a human construct that started in the middle ages by the church to secure their control and power over people,” to the other end,

2. A detailed lengthy comprehensive gospel presentation which was actually good if the sufferer could take it all in, to

3. The middle majority, which encouraged the writer to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with those she admitted to hurting.

These posts were over a year ago. This woman may not still be alive, and the site did not show her response to the comments her original plea generated. Did she find peace? I hope so. If I had responded a year ago, I like to think I would have written:

“None of us are good enough to meet the holy standard of God. None of us. Thus, God himself in Jesus appeared 2000 years ago with a mission for securing our forgiveness. By simply trusting in his sacrifice by faith we are found perfect and acceptable before a perfect and holy God. Nothing is more liberating for the guilt-ridden. I know this. Then Christ fills our heart with gratitude and out of this grows the humility and courage to trust God to ask forgiveness from those we have offended.”

I hope she took the best of the advice and received the grace through Christ who forgives it all. I can’t imagine that if she sought her family’s forgiveness that she did not receive it from them. If she  did not, well, peace with God trumps all to secure her peace for eternity.
A recently composed hymn, “His Mercy is More,” says it beautifully. It was inspired by a sermon by John Newton, the creator of “Amazing Grace”.

“Our sins are many, but His mercies are more: our sins are great, But His righteousness is greater: we are weak but He is power.”

– John Newton

A Dangerous Cancer Diagnosis Revealed Surprising Parallels to the Good News

A surprising diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer in December left my nerves frayed and my capacity to see the positive challenged. That is not quite accurate. Anybody who knows me well knows that my capacity to see the negatives in a situation is formidable. I like to refer to myself as a troubleshooter who can sniff out DANGER with remarkable neurotic accuracy, a source of endless frustration to a husband, who is a natural optimist.

My first consult after a series of scans taken 3 months into treatment was tense (you think!). Theresa, my oncologist’s right-hand nurse practitioner, read me the radiologist’s report which sounded alarmingly ambivalent to my ears and apparently my facial expression exposed my alarm.

“Dona, what is going on? I’m not encouraging you. I can tell by looking at you. “

All I was hearing was something like this little tune, “Cancer here, cancer there, a little cancer sprinkled everywhere.”

She tried again to give me the report’s findings with more color commentary and positive caveats. No dice, I just couldn’t hear what was good in the report.
Finally, Theresa looked at David, “David, help me out, why am I not able to encourage Dona?”

They started talking about the way I process new information as if I wasn’t in the room. I finally said, “OK, Theresa, bottom line – should I be happy from what I’m hearing? It sounds confusing and unconvincing.”

Theresa’s response helped, “Dona, you should be ecstatic!”

I breathed my first deep breath. But as David explained, I still needed to process (David, gets me and most of the time he is supernaturally patient. Bless him). I hounded him the next few days with a ton of questions. I wanted to understand and emotionally experience the good news of this first 3 months of treatment on a new drug.  Since that day I’ve wondered about my reactions and wondered whether there were spiritual parallels.

Life and death information takes serious processing
I, like most people, want straight forward explanations. If people are like me, they want a simple dopamine rush of good news; end of story, no caveats and no qualifiers.
I was confronted with a report about life or death. If ever there was a time to seek clarification and interpretation wasn’t that the moment? I can be forgiven for not being easily placated considering the gravity of my health situation. There was another problem. I was mentally and emotionally dense to the language, descriptions and vocabulary of this serious diagnostic report. I needed help to figure this out. Where was the good news? I kept asking until it finally seeped in, but it was a struggle.

There was another time long ago when good news didn’t sound immediately like good news. When I was an undergraduate, I was walking a dorm hall and was roped in to a bible study in a dorm room. By the time I left I was handed my first New Testament. I read and read and read. The good news that these dorm Christians were talking about was escaping me. The more I read the worst I felt about my spiritual condition and how little my life reflected the teachings of Jesus. I wasn’t getting this good news thing. In retrospect, I was feeling the bad news of being a sinner. The good news – relief from disappointment and guilt – was only a whisper at that point. I entertained chucking it for something spiritually benign, mellow and nonjudgmental. I tried transcendental meditation but continued private reading of the New Testament. Jesus was compelling, but he said some things that I didn’t understand or even like. Some of what was written provoked an angst that was akin to despair. I wanted to read something that made me feel good and accepting of where I was with no changes required. Where was this good news? This New Testament document was serious. There was an alarming truth that intuitively felt like I was being confronted with life and death. I got that far but I was stuck.

Clarification and interpretation are needed
I needed help with the vocabulary and concepts of the New Testament. I had questions, tons of questions, with no one to go to but books that I read while sitting on floors of book stores and libraries. Eventually I found smarter, wiser and older people than me to throw all my questions. I was a dog on a bone; stubbornly holding on but growling along the way, refusing to be distracted or relaxed. Accepting this Good News about Jesus without fully understanding would not stand the test of time. Giving up on the whole thing was a viable option – too much cognitive dissonance. But in hindsight that ‘dog on a bone’ compulsion was a gift of the Holy Spirit. I had to face and humbly accept the bad news about myself to get to the good news: that through believing in Christ, his sacrifice and resurrection, I could be forgiven and receive the peace I had been longing for. Ultimately, I received the good news, ended the growling and began to enjoy and relax within the joy of my “bone”.

Final parallel: Discipleship can feel like medical treatment
Long term Christian discipleship, all those moments of your life after you receive the Good News, many times is like reviewing the reports of full body scans and looking for malignancies. The news can be bad. We may realize there is more work to be done. Questions and doubts will come up. A treatment plan may need to be developed and rigorously implemented in ways that are not comfortable. However, we will have the Great Physician treating and encouraging us to “fight the good fight” for knowledge of the truth and then persevering (2 Timothy 4:7) until that one day when we rest in the presence of God forever.

Guest Post: I Gave Her Bad Advice

The following post is from my husband, David.

Can a positive attitude affect breast cancer survival? No. It can even hurt.

Since we learned that Dona’s cancer had returned and spread, I have encouraged her to stay positive, think positive, be optimistic. I told her studies have shown that a positive attitude is linked to survival. img_3576

As it turns out, I was wrong. I was giving her bad advice; advice that was not just unhelpful but potentially harmful.

A 9-year study of nearly 1100 cancer patients by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found no relationship between positive outlook and cancer progression and death. At least two additional well designed and implemented studies support these findings. Based on what researchers know now about how cancer starts and grows, there’s no reason to believe that negative emotions can cause cancer or help it grow.

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Not always the best plan

And, as I learned, encouraging a cancer sufferer to stay positive can be anti-therapeutic. It can hurt, particularly when the ‘encourager’ links positive outlook to longevity, like I did.  I placed an additional burden on Dona, who has enough on her plate managing fear, side-effects, and me. Although she never said so, I was likely creating guilt and discouragement during the times she was unable to muster up a positive attitude.

But the impulse is natural. We want to believe that we have the will-power to control the outcomes of a serious illnesses.

Moreover, amongst Christians, we link healing to faith. On the extreme end, the ‘health-and-wealth gospel’ purveyors contend that healing can only come from the certainty of our belief in God’s promise of physical well-being. Without knowing, I may have been playing in to this.

Do I believe that God can heal Dona miraculously? Yes, I’m praying He will. Do I believe He must heal if she or I have unwavering faith? I can’t convince myself that is true. God can heal anyone, anytime, with or without my faith. Linking the certainty of my faith directly and solely to healing places too much burden and power on me. But at the same time, I’m reminded that Jesus told us to believe that we will receive whatever we ask for in prayer (Mark 11:22-24; Matthew 21:19-22). I’m asking Jesus to take my mustard seed of faith and use it however He wants. (Matthew 17:20) If this sounds like I’m waffling, I am. Looking at my own weakness, I take comfort in the father who asked Jesus to heal his child who was afflicted with terrible seizures. He told Jesus, “Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief.” (Mark 9:21-29)

And then, almost a companion piece to the name-it-and-claim-it Christians is the typical American temperament which ignores mortality and promotes self-determination.

“Fix it, avoid it, or fight it. It is entirely within your control. You can prevail!”
“Cancer won’t win. Just believe you are going to beat it! Be a fighter!”

Dona hates the term, ‘she was a fighter’. She asks, “What’s the corollary for someone who dies of cancer? She was a loser?”

The way forward

Dona is not at death’s door. She has a cancer that is not curable, but it is treatable. She is getting the best treatments for the best possible outcome.

But delusional optimism, that positive thinking will control cancer, is, well,  delusional. Living with hope, however, is essential.  Author and pastor, Tim Keller says,

“The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future.”

Our pastor, Steve Schenk, told us in a recent sermon:

“Despair is believing there is no way forward. Hope, for the sufferer, is believing there is a path forward.”

How does Dona see a way forward in hope with metastatic cancer? She combines deep theology with practical behavior. To date, I have watched her employ over a dozen different techniques in constructing a path ahead. I would like to list them, but Dona nixed that. She reasons that, one, it would make this post over 2000 words and, two, it places undo emphasis on her behavior.  Fair enough.

But I will write that her efforts, habits, and musings promote hope and joy. And experiencing joy where we can find it has been one of our objectives since we started this journey.  Joy, as we Christians know it, has less to do with our circumstances and more to do with a settled assurance that God knows our condition and that nothing: cancer, grief or even death itself, can separate us from his love. (Romans 8:35-39)

So, how can I help Dona? I asked her and she told me,

“Pray for me, read scripture to me, point me to the reason for my existence, remind me that this reality is not the only reality, and have fun with me. And do these again and again and again and again.”