A sensitive but probing comment from a dinner companion caused me to consider anew the privilege and blessing in knowing your days are numbered.
Dinner with friends a few evenings ago led to a conversation not usually found on a list of social dinner topics. My last blog post generated comments and questions about living in appreciation of life’s moments without assumptions of endless tomorrows. As we discussed this post my host struggled to express a sentiment that he worried would offend for its insensitivity. Finally, it came out. To paraphrase,
“You, Dona, know your mortality on a visceral level, affording opportunity for deep reflection and insight into life, death, God, and eternity. Now, any of us here could die before you, but we would have missed an opportunity to think through these questions. Here comes the part which might offend – because of your awareness of the eminence of your death you are more blessed than us.”
My dear friend had made an insightful and totally sensitive comment. He would have never said this to a young adult or parent with young children. There is the fact that at 68 I have lived long enough to see children grow up and to have experienced a lot of life. I am old. Not-ready-to-die-old but living longer than the majority of the world.
So, I considered anew the significance of being able to live thoughtfully and gratefully. There is a strange privilege and blessing in knowing your days are numbered. You ponder more.
My latest pondering
For too long I have thought of eternal life as what happened after death and having nothing in common with life as I know it. A deeper examination of what Jesus says reveals a “nowness” to this eternal life.
And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.”
– 1 John 5:11
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”
– John 5:24
How do I live more fully into this eternal life promised by Jesus?
How can I already see myself in this ‘already-eternal-life’ so that the end will be, as my friend called, “going from life to more life”?
One of the ways I cultivate this “now-ness” was described in my last post. I nurture curiosity in as many things as I can realizing that this joy of learning and discovery are mere intimations of more to come. Second, when I laugh with and love those around me I resist the joy-snatcher demons that want to remind me that I won’t have this for long. Rather, I remember Jesus’ words, “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” I now assume that this joy I experience is a glimpse of a completed joy to come. And finally, I think about Jesus who said that He was and is the light, the way and the resurrection; a spring of water that quenches all thirst for unfulfilled longings. He’s the real deal, the conduit to life eternal. He’s a joy to know and to know better.
(Caveat: I’m not superhuman. I have my down moments as you might suspect but many days I live in the life of more life to come.)
A conversation with my grandsons somehow led to the telling of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. I took some liberties with the story and highlighted parts that I knew would intrigue them, like the tension and animosity between Jews and Samaritans at that time. I emphasized how Jesus would have no part of that nonsense. By the end of the story, the 9-year-old spontaneously commented, “that Jesus is a great guy.” Bulls eye hit! Hallelujah! Nothing more needed to be said, just letting that thought sit with him and with me. Jesus, a great guy, a great God who offers the eternal life now with all its evolutions, dimensions, progressive developments and for tastes of the new heavens and new earth to come.
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.
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!)
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.”
Metastatic breast cancer is a serious chronic disease that can’t be cured and is nearly always fatal. I am hoping for the miraculous and whether that comes through medical research or from Divine intervention I will be shouting hallelujah!!!
The disease, like many diseases, forces life changing limitations that tempt many to disbelieve in a good God. But not all will go that path. There has been and will be those who will find their limitations wooing them to trust in a God who loves them.
I understand that for some skeptics, faith in God is a crutch. I disagree. Faith is not a crutch, it is a rescue gurney – a Stokes litter, an essential for which I need not apologize. A crutch would never carry the weight of my greatest limitation: a finite mind and troubled soul unable to locate the peace and joy I long for.
Today is Good Friday, the calendar day that Christians have honored for centuries. This is the historical transcendent event that provided rescue gurneys for all who would humble themselves to be carried. The story of a paralyzed man on an actual rescue litter in Luke 5:17-49 is worth a look as a way of testing what I’m about to write.
A paralyzed man is so helpless that his friends lower him on a gurney through a torn-out roof top to put him before Jesus. His good friends went to this extreme because the crowd around Jesus was impenetrable. The moment arrives when friends and the crowd anticipate a healing miracle by Jesus.
But, Jesus does the unexpected. He pronounces the man’s sins forgiven, sending a shock wave among the religious whose theological understanding would see this statement as blasphemous, because, as they said, “Who but God can forgive sins?” Jesus, knowing their thoughts, challenges their thinking and hardness of heart. Jesus points to our greatest limitation, the disruption of our relationship with God through lack of love for Him which will eventually challenge our ability to love others, especially the unlovable. Then he gives the man the physical healing of mobility.
Good Friday celebrates the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Why are Christians “celebrating” such a tortuous event; decried by skeptics as morbid? But this horrific offense is not what we celebrate. We celebrate with somber reverence the display of extravagant grace and costly love done by the only one who could forgive sins, our greatest limitation.
So Happy Easter, dear friends. We have this hope. As Paul said , in talking about our mortality, “we do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and arose again.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Mornings can be tough. I wake and face a day where side effects of treatment must be managed, including the worst of all, fatigue which challenges every movement. As I texted to a friend, yesterday, “This ‘whack-a-mole’ existence, the bane of all of us Stage 4 types, will be endless. Do I have the strength for this?”
And so I cry, and David hears.
The other day he encouraged me to read my posts from 2014-2016.
“I read them, Dona, and they are good and comforting. Perhaps you would receive comfort, too.”
I have taken his encouragement to heart so I am reading a few here and there (see companion piece that I wrote earlier on finding God’s comfort) but with some trepidation; fearing that that which was so real back then will not feel as real now that the diagnosis is so much harsher. And not only have I been reluctant to read my previous cancer blog posts, but I enter the cancer hospital feeling less familial with my fellow tribe of cancer sufferers. An unhealthy envy creeps into my psyche for all those folks who have cancer but are in the treatment for the cure. I was one of them in the “good old days of stage 3” but now metastatic singles me out, isolates me from the others or so it feels. It is as if I wish there was a clinic within the hospital with its own private entrance that was reserved for all stage 4 cancer patients. I imagine myself talking more with these folks, mining their thoughts and feelings, sharing something helpful with them and they with me. I’m thinking of joining a Stage 4 support group. Meanwhile, I am reading my earlier posts and breathing sighs of relief that it is still the comforting truth for me then and for me now.
As bleak, sad and angry as I can feel sometimes it always comes down to something that the apostle Peter said when many followers left Christ after He delivered a hard teaching. Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Peter, will you leave me, also?” Of which Peter responded, “Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Life as we all well know can be cruel, indifferent and unbearable at times. If not for us its no doubt been hard for people we know and love. And if somehow we and all our family and friends have escaped the vicissitudes of life, well, then just read news about places and people who struggle through unimaginable loss and suffering. Where do they all go when it gets tough? A lot die, no doubt, but did they die with hope? I don’t know and nor do I presume to answer for them but I have found no greater answer to my despair than what Peter said to Jesus.
“Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life”. (John 60:68)
When I am struggling with the demon of despair it’s the reality that Christ has the words of eternal life that throws me the life ring of hope and faith. There is something about the words of Christ and the words of his followers who wrote gospels and letters in a text we call the New Testament that awakens something in me that feels alive, organic, true and full of conviction, promise and hope. The scriptures give me comfort in my grief but also the scriptures give me needed chastisement from time to time that feels oddly hopeful, too. The scriptures challenge me to think outside my pre-occupation with self – the mandate to serve and pray for the poor and others brings comfort. The scriptures prompt me to think about the cosmos (I’m binge watching Netflix’s the “Fabric of the Universe”). The big bang of our big God excites and reassures. Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” I like contemplating the bigness and mysteries of God and His creation and I imagine his delight as humans are driven to discover and explore the grandeur of it all.
One of my favorite quotes from Jerome, one of the early Christian fathers, concerning the gospel captures wonderfully what these words of eternal life are like for me:
“The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for a theologian to swim in without ever touching the bottom.” ― Jerome.
I am more than fond of this Jerome quote. It is one of my favorites. I like to think that suffering when I am at my best moves me beyond treading water to diving deep for those words of eternal life.
I walk into the Roswell Park Cancer Institute with my senses sharp-focused and on high alert. I’m in another culture and whether I like it or not, it’s now my culture. I belong. I can speak the language, navigate the geography and obey the protocols. But I am determined to remain who I am before I was initiated into this new culture, so I smile a lot for no other reason than to maintain some normalcy. I am a smiler by nature, but smiles are not common in a cancer hospital, hardly surprising but I refuse to stop smiling, just yet. (For more reflection on my Roswell culture and smiling see Duchenne Smiles Only, Please of March 2014.)
Other than smiling, I am scanning the population, looking carefully at faces. The faces resemble mine – lined and showing some wear.
This fact brings me around to a beauty tip that will keep you baby boomers from spending your retirement at the cosmetic counter for one of the billion products promising to be age-defying. Smiling lifts those sagging nasolabial folds, so you look younger. Better yet, you don’t look grumpy even if grumpiness is the furthest thing from your disposition.
My point? The vast majority of the people at Roswell Cancer Institute look like they are 60 and older and that’s a good thing. Cancer is predominantly a condition of the aged. I am reassured by that. Occasionally in the breast cancer clinic I see a young mom with a helper who is attempting to corral a small child as she waits to be seen. It breaks my heart. It just shouldn’t be. I think of my daughters with their young children and my heart’s response is, “Can I take it for the family?” But we know it doesn’t work that way. Cancer is not a respecter of family life nor of anything remotely related to matters of fairness, kindness or common decency.
When I was first diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2014 my youngest daughter said, “Mom, as awful as this is going to be for you what I know for sure is that if this was happening to me or my sister you would be a basket case.” Yep, at that moment I had my first moment of thankfulness. Grateful it was me and not them.
Weird back story: when my first child was a toddler a good family friend died of lymphoma. I became obsessed with the fear of cancer. My neck was bruised from searching, prodding and poking for swollen lymph nodes. I went to the doctor pointing out some swollen bits. The doctor was annoyingly unimpressed. I went to another doctor. No satisfaction there either. I drove my poor husband crazy with the “what ifs.” (David lovingly refers to that period of our lives as the neurotic imaginary cancer scare of the 80’s). So, what was going on? The therapist in me analyzes that period of my life as a sort of coming of age process. Motherhood, with its great love for a vulnerable dependent human being, also came with great anxiety, realizing that life held little control. A little toddler needed her mother and I developed a neurotic need to reassure myself that we could never be separated. Time passed and more life happened (another child was born) there was less time to focus on the scary “what ifs” of this life. My neurosis took a rest. But I am not apologizing nor thinking its neurotic to hold to the view that there is something terribly wrong with a world that takes loving mothers or fathers from their vulnerable young children.
Kate Bowler is a young professor of Christian history at Duke Theological Seminary, author and speaker. She also happens to have stage 4 cancer and has written sharply, poignantly and honestly about how she is supposed to make sense of a young mother dying, leaving behind a husband and young son. She is a Christian trying to make sense of her new reality. Her articles and books are hard reading at times. The caustic wit and honesty are not typical of female Christian writers who attempt to make us feel better. Be prepared to squirm.
Bowler is living out my younger self’s worst fear. Now, I have stage 4 metastatic breast cancer but I am long past being that young mother of a small child who lived in dreaded fear of cancer. I’m saddened and anxious about an unknown future but grateful that I saw my little children grow up to be amazing women. But before I come across as too ready to cross the finish line of motherhood, clarity is needed. I am pursuing the best medical treatment, staying as positive as possible, and praying for miraculous healing. I love my adult children and long to see them grow into their 40’s with all the self-awareness and maturity that awaits them. I adore my grandsons and long to live long enough for them to have memories of their Nona. I fret about my 93 year old mother being without her only child. I love, love my best friend and husband of almost 40 years and grieve as I think of his loneliness and aging beyond his 65 years without me. But the utter panic of leaving small children behind has thankfully been replaced with a swipe of my brow that a bullet has been dodged.
What’s the point to this post? Hmm… not exactly sure except to answer the question my husband asked me as I was going down the other day into an abyss of miserable complaining (and it was not the first time) about a miserable world where so much miserable suffering happens to women and children and innocents through disease, cruelty, poverty, corruption, and greed.
“So, Dona, where would you be right now without a hope of an eternity where all injustice and suffering has its comeuppance and end? where all wrongs are made right?”
Hard to know where I would be. I have piled up decades attempting to live the life of a faithful follower of Christ so its hard to imagine living a reality without thought of Him and its implications. But I will say that that belief includes something so important to my spiritual and psychological well being that I quake to imagine myself without it. It’s the belief that I am loved by a “thick-skinned God” who can take my many complaints without flinching, frowning or regretting he knows and loves me. I take my cue from the psalms of lament and the book of Job and the Old testament prophets and from Christ, Himself. As Kate Bowler says, “This life is hard, and this life is beautiful.” I’m just so thankful that I can live my remaining life steeped in the meaning and mystery of a thick–skinned God who gets me even when I struggle to get Him.
Footnote: In the Hebrew Bible there are approximately 67 Psalms of Lament. In them the Psalmist complains to God directly about an injustice or tragedy and unabashedly asks God to do something. With only the rare exception, these poems start with grief and end with trust in God, even joy. My personal favorite, Psalm 22, is quoted in part by Jesus on the cross, and serves as a wonderful companion to the famous Psalm 23.
Stage 4 cancer patients have another definition for victory
Preamble: I took note of Dona’s post, the Clarity of Ink where she contends that writing forcibly imposes boundaries on thinking and reins in anxious thoughts. So, I began to write about my worries and hopes for my wife who is living so valiantly with Stage 4 cancer. Dona suggested when I was ready I could guest-post on her blog. I’m a bit uncertain making this public. Writing is quite therapeutic, but it is likely only a help to me. Moreover, as I reread this post just before publishing, I realized there is much essential stuff not in it: what it means to trust and pursue God, the necessity of prayer, the hope for miracles, the need for a positive outlook, the understandable disconnection and feeling of helplessness that the lover has for the much loved sufferer. Well, perhaps those are the subject of future posts.
– Dave Eley
The atrium lobby within the Roswell Park Cancer Institute is what all good atriums should be – bright, airy, cavernous (4 stories), full of activity, welcoming – an excellent stab at normalizing the experience of entering an institution with a fearful name. RPCI has the practice of ringing a bell in the atrium each time a patient finishes their treatment regimen. Everyone scuttling through the lobby stops and applauds. The finish of a tough race in the fight against cancer. Victory for a person who has prevailed, with his or her team, over a great challenge.
By in large, the bell rings for patients that have Stage 1-3 cancers. Dona was Stage 3 in 2014. In the words of Dona’s surgeon, “the horse was still in the barn.” Like others, she enjoyed the huge relief and encouragement that her cancer was quite possibly curable (see Dona’s post, The Bad News Ends Today ). But to survive, she endured a range of harsh treatments. With late-stage non-metastatic cancer, she got the full nine yards: surgery, uncomfortable surgical incision drains, subdermal medication port implant (actually quite a convenience), chemotherapy, hair loss (but she had a half-dozen great wigs), fatigue, infections (one landed her in the ICU), shingles, endless radiation which compromised my health from eating endless donuts while waiting for her in the hospitality suite. Yet, there was always an endpoint; a horizon to labor towards. At some point the bell in the atrium would toll and there would be the ‘victory dance’ of a person who has prevailed, with her team, over a great challenge.
Then there is the group for whom no bell tolls. This is the stage 4 group, or descriptively, people whose cancer has spread to distal organs. The horse is now out of the barn. We discovered shortly before Christmas 2018 that Dona was now in this group – the ‘new metastatic me’ as she now calls herself.
Although a full array of treatment options can be marshalled to fight the disease, the cancer is not curable. Simplistically speaking, medically, the treatment is whack-a-mole; like an endless fight against urban insurgency. Battles will be won but these folks must develop a new definition for victory over cancer.
Roswell Park’s vision is “to free our world from the fear, pain and loss due to cancer — one act of compassion, one breakthrough discovery, one life-changing therapy at a time — until cancer is gone.” I love that: big, vivid, energizing, inspiring. It holistically covers both the process and the objective. But it is the mission and vision of science and human endeavor. It is not complete for the incredible woman who is my wife that is now picking her way through the Stage 4 scree. (See: Nick, the barber, says, “Trust God, then your doctors.
I am a retired military officer. The sailor in me loves well-crafted mission objectives. The man-child in me wants to tamp down anxiety by doing something, ANYTHING. So, shortly after Dona’s setback we worked together to draw up a plan of 3 parts:
1. Pursue the best possible treatments for the best possible outcomes.
We will stay informed and be our best advocates. But it is a relief that this mission is mostly in the hands of the excellent, caring, encouraging Roswell Park team. There are new therapies today that were not available when Dona was first treated in 2014. We are grateful. We are maintaining a positive outlook.
2. Double down on the present. Experience joy where we can find it.
Ordinary experiences are much more intense now.
Two weeks into a new treatment regimen, Dona developed incredibly painful mouth sores. That, coupled with a low blood cell count and worries about an infection kept her in bed and PJ’s most of the week; working on a blog piece titled, ‘Loneliness.’
Our daughter provided therapy and distraction when she asked me to pick up our two grandsons from school. Dona wanted in. She arrived at school armed with treats. She had purchased two bottles of flavored milk – chocolate and mint green. I told her not to present two different bottles of milk for the kids would argue over one in favor of the other. She said she knew which flavor each preferred. No problem. Once in the car kids began to argue, push and shove over the green milk. I smirked. I love being right. Dona demanded that we immediately return to Wegman’s to exchange the chocolate for another green. Though annoyed, I dutifully pulled into Wegman’s and Dona leaped from the car. The boys and I sat in the car for what seemed like less than a minute before she was back. We were startled at her speed. Each boy now had their own delicious bottle of green mint milk, or what the younger called booger-milk. The older boy, having more academic training, called it, mucous-milk. Much laughter. That was joy for us.
Not always, but sometimes suffering can make the little things, even silliness, seem so much more. At that moment joy was the vivid green of the ‘mucous-milk.’
I love my wife. Strong and courageous, longsuffering without being stoic. Looking for rays from a pale winter sun and finding them.
3. Think deep about eternity.
This, of course, is the endeavor of a lifetime. Much to think about and write here. Tim Keller has the jest it:
“Suffering takes away the loves, joys, and comforts we rely on to give our life meaning. How can we maintain our poise, and even our peace and joy, when that happens? The answer is that we can do that only if we locate our meaning in things that cannot be touched by death.”
Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, (Dutton, 2013), p. 36
What then is victory over cancer?
The Apostle Paul writes:
“Then what is written will come true. It says, “Death has been swallowed up. It has lost the battle.” (Isaiah 25:8) “Death, where is the victory you thought you had? Death, where is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14) The sting of death is sin. And the power of sin is the law. But let us give thanks to God! He gives us the victory because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done.
– I Corinthians 15:54-56
‘Cancer can’t win’ is a frequently used banner for fundraisers. I Googled it. Most of the hits referenced Christian hope in the face of the disease. Many hits reproduced a poem written in the 1970’s by Robert Lynn for a friend. This poem was passed around pre-internet hand-to-hand as the words of an anonymous author and was eventually posted on line by people wanting to comfort friends and family. In the mid-2000’s, Lynn discovered his work had garnered over 160 million hits. It was time for a copyright!
CANCER IS SO LIMITED
Robert L. Lynn
Can cancer conquer you? I doubt it, for the strengths I see in you have nothing to do with cells and blood and muscle.
For cancer is so limited—
It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot kill friendship.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot reduce eternal life.
It cannot quench the spirit.
It cannot cancel Resurrection.
Can cancer conquer you? I doubt it, for the strengths I see in you have nothing to do with cells and blood and muscle.
You know what I’m talking about. A song seizes you with an intimate knowledge of yourself. It comes out of nowhere. You weren’t looking for it and even if you were you wouldn’t have found it. It’s not your preferred genre of music and you were not familiar with the artist. It would never be recommended on your Pandora stations. You listen to other songs on the album and you are disappointed. You want the emotional high to go higher, but it is not to be. Its locked up in just one song: a mystical combination of lyrics, voice, instruments, video images (YouTube version), timing in your life, and whatever else can’t be explained about music and its effect on the soul. So, this new song is comforting the “new metastatic me.”
There is always the risk in sharing something deeply personal that it will not be received with the same awe. I know better. I have had people recommend songs, books, articles, art work, movies, etc. that have been meaningful and soul-grabbing for them but I have not been completely on board with their enthusiasm. But I get it. They can’t help promoting it and nor can I with this song. We humans are “sharers” at our core. We desperately need and cherish connection and never so much as when we are in the storms of life. This is not so surprising as I consider that we are the only created beings made in His image. The Maker of Heaven and Earth who is Love and the ultimate Sharer of love has instilled that aspect of his nature into us. His longing, if such an emotion can be ascribed to the “all-sufficient God within himself,” is for us to be sharers of love with him and extend it to others.
So, no apologies for sending this on to you and you likewise keep sending out your soul’s longings captured in whatever form they come to you. God may very well have something for one of his children to share with another of his children. He’s the ultimate sharing Being after all.
“For God so loved the world that He gave (shared) His One and Only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world guilty, but to save the world through Him.”
– John 3:16-17
So, thanks Jessica for sharing and sending Josh Garrels’ ‘Farther Along’ to me. I am feeling its love.