Why do I feel ashamed?

“If you have your health you have everything.”

I have heard this refrain many times in my life, especially from Italian American relatives. Maybe it is an Italian American sentiment, but I suspect many people feel this way. How else can we explain a culture that is consumed with living better, longer, and more independently. Is not living with vim and vigor a prized and admired achievement? Are not many of us willing to put commitment, time and money into achieving our health goals through exercise, better nutritional choices, active recreational activities (baking, bowling and backgammon not qualifying), as well as keeping up with all recommended preventive health measures?

Good health is no doubt a great blessing, but it is also become a badge of honor to proudly display. “God bless you” is an expression that I find myself using when I meet old people who want to brag on their longevity and good health. This is odd. It makes more sense to pronounce God’s blessing on folks who sneeze. They might need a blessing to ward off sickness. Longevity with vibrant healthy living is certainly a gift from God but it is not a reward!

So how does this relate to cancer and shame?

Many cancer patients and those suffering from chronic illness struggle with a sense of stigma, guilt, or shame. Why should this be? Since diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer in 2014 and now dealing with metastatic cancer since December 2018, I had come to understand this feeling.

Two weeks ago I did not get a good scan report. I had been feeling relatively good, not vim-and-vigor good, but good enough to be positive as I waited for the report’s findings. My husband and I were therefore blindsided by the news (some liver tumor progression). The FNP was kindly trying to comfort me before the oncologist came in to discuss a new treatment option but I just wanted her to leave so I could comfort David, knowing he was distressed by the news.

“David I’m so sorry for you,” was, oddly, the first thing I said to him.

He kindly responded, “You shouldn’t feel sorry for me. I feel so badly for you.”

What was my apology about? After some self-examination I realized that I irrationally believed I had let him down and was the cause of his angst and worry. I also was reluctant to tell friends who were praying for me. Again, I felt like I was letting others down; that somehow, I did this to myself or that I was defected and not able to do my part in this battle against cancer. But worst of all I was dealing with the erroneous belief that God did not want to bless me in a way we were all hoping for because I was somehow unfit. I felt ashamed.

With the media applauding the strong and energetic

Shame and Shaming

Shame, according to Webster, is a ‘painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.’ It is an intensely difficult emotion. ‘Shaming’ is also a noun and is the act of subjecting someone to shame. And there is plenty of shaming in children’s and adults’ lives. Shaming arises from what we esteem in our culture: media-good looks, fit bodies, youth, material acquisitions, achievements, and correct opinions.

Yes, shaming is ubiquitous in parenting, marriages, health visits, social media, teaching, and among kids on playgrounds, middle and high schools.

In his early twenties, my husband taught science in a junior high school in North Carolina. Junior high is ground zero for shaming. No one is exempt. David humorously recalls one day when a student became upset with him.

“You are nothing but a big-nosed, baby teacher!” she shouted, storming out of his classroom.

That evening, David looked in a mirror, carefully examining his face.

“Darn, she is right! I do have a big nose.”

Dave and Dona debutant 1977 edited
Me with ‘big-nose, baby teacher’ in 1977. Story and photo used with complete permission from my husband.  Yikes! On closer inspection, my nose could use a tweak (vanity, vanity!)

David is forever grateful this shaming occurred when he was 22 and not 12; allowing him enough maturity to process the revelation (kinda). But he admits that from that fateful day he has been forever conscious of his proboscis.

Personally, I like his nose. I was a bit bothered by the label, ‘baby-teacher.’ What was that about?

Getting back to cancer

I know that cancers start because of a mistake in copying DNA when normal cells are dividing and growing. Mainly, these mistakes just happen by chance. I remind myself of this over and over. And yet, doubt creeps in.

We have heard it said and perhaps said it ourselves, “He was diagnosed with cancer, but he was a smoker. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she was not doing breast exams on herself (that was me), or she ate a ton of junk food.”  I could go on with the ‘buts’ and ‘victim shaming’.  Fear and shame are intermingled with cancer.  Without necessarily meaning to, we feel subtly critical of those stricken with cancer and comfort ourselves against the fear of cancer by looking at our wellness as doing it right.  Then a cell mutates during replication and somehow finds a way to continue to replicate……..and we feel the sting of shame.

The shaming of Christ

“If you have your health you have everything” is shortsighted. We can have our health, live wonderfully well until 105 and not have everything. Everything includes the eternity we are destined for. 105 or 1005 years old is paltry in comparison. Our bodies and/or minds will someday fail us so now is the time to take stock of the purpose of human life as God-imagers, drawing our self esteem and  identity from being beloved children of God.   And most of all we are to take comfort and relief from trusting in the Christ who not only died for sins but also for our shame regardless of what cancer or culture tells us or what we tell ourselves because of shame from things we have done.

In fact, Jesus endured shaming himself.

Hebrews 12:2

We fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

To quote John Piper:

“Shame was stripping away every earthly support that Jesus had: his friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming mockery; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture. His glorious dignity gave way to the utterly undignified, degrading reflexes of grunting and groaning and screeching.”

And so, I work to move on, praying Psalm 25:1-3b:

In you, LORD my God, I put my trust. I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies (my self-image, the stigma of cancer, American perfectionism, Satan the accuser, or any worldly thing!) triumph over me. No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame.

Cancer, COVID-19 and the fear of God

It has taken me decades to learn the meaning of  “fear God or fear everything else.”  Here is my story.

In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18, the majority of Americans finally turned against the Vietnam War, Disney World opened in Orlando, James Taylor and Janis Joplin were at the top of the charts, and I was looking for peace of mind.

At the spontaneous invite of a college acquaintance I joined a bible study. After listening and reading for several weeks, I began to believe, or so I thought, I was finally exposed to the “real Gospel.” I was told Jesus wanted to be my buddy and cheerleader; a celestial presence that would give me peace and lead me on paths of success and happiness!

Fearing the Lord, a common refrain in the scriptures, was tamed by well-meaning Christian encouragers. No need to fear God, just trust that Jesus died for my sins and then enjoy an “all good, cleared for heaven status.” Discipleship, as in learning how to live like Jesus, sounded nice but it also sounded optional and too radical. I thought I was okay with that, but guilty and confusing feelings persisted as I tried to walk the fence between my youth culture and the Christian life. Little did I realize that “fear of the Lord” was wedded to love and comfort from God. I was trying on the new clothes of a Christian commitment and not finding them very comfortable and certainly not stylish. It was grueling. Anxiety and insecurity abounded but I stubbornly persisted towards this dead end; always hoping I would get a thumbs up from Jesus for labeling myself as a Christian. Jesus would understand a young woman just wanting to be, well, cool and culturally relevant while still loving Him or so I wanted to believe. I suspected that I was eventually going to give up this fling; the cognitive dissonance was driving me nuts. My secular friends were also waiting for the penny to drop and figured it would be just a matter of time before I was brought back to my secular senses.

Slide2Before writing further, let me be clear. I had no question that I was accepted by God. I had peace with God through Christ’s sacrifice, not through any action or behavior on my part. But I did not have peace of mind.

Living a double life was becoming too stressful. I finally cried uncle. I embarked on a good old-fashioned biblical activity. I began to REPENT of my double mindedness in order to learn how to live the way Jesus wanted me to.

First, I realized that I had to circle back around to the fear of God. It wasn’t easy. I circled with trepidation; the skittish movements of a timid animal trying to get close to a compelling fierce presence that was simultaneously good and terrifying. For much of my youth fear was the compass that directed my ways and thoughts. It had worked until it didn’t!

Dale Bruner, commenting on one of the most ominous but, paradoxically, comforting sayings of Jesus (Matthew 10:26-31), concluded, “And blessedly, the one who fears God is liberated from fear of people – no little liberation…..Fear God or fear everything!” 1

Again, clear explanations are needed. We are not to be scared of God. Fear of God is not the fear a servant has for a harsh master. It is more akin to the love, reverence, awe, and, yes, fear a child might have for a loving, wise parent who has expectations of the child for her own good. Like the loving parent, nothing can separate us from his love. He will never leave or forsake us. (Romans 8:38-39; Hebrews 13:5)

As I approached the center of that terrifyingAs it turned out, as I approached the center of that terrifying, fearful, holy presence that I began to experience a beautiful, flourishing life. I experienced a power to not just want to be good but a liberation that made it possible for goodness, wisdom, love and community to begin to be part of my nature without the white knuckling attempts to be good. My deepest needs were finding the source and power to become a learner of Christ and I was being renewed and refreshed; not overnight but the trajectory was set. I had purpose and purpose that finally brought the peace.

Here I am, 47 years later with metastatic breast cancer, a compromised immune system, and a lung inflammation (side effect of cancer drug). As it turns out, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I never been more grateful for embracing the fear of God. There is an ultimate authority who reminds me of who is in charge and why and for whom I exist.

What is the Fear of God?
Psalm 34 is helpful here.

Seeking the Lord,
Embracing that God is in charge, not me or any other person, institution, or government,
Recognizing that he is the center of the universe, not me,
• Gladly accepting that He is the boss of my life, not me, and finally,
Operating as a mortal destined for immortality because of the will of the one “who alone is immortal and lives in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).

Many of you will have your own descriptors for a healthy fear of the Lord. The bottom line is that the ‘Fear of the Lord’ is a good and needful truth that grounds and encourages us in this chaotic world.

 

1. Bruner, F.D. 2004. Matthew, A Commentary, Vol 1: The Christbook. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 483 pp.

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.

‘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.

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.”

A Post of Lament

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.

african-american-mother-praying-clipart-6Weird 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.

grown daughter and mother_standingBowler 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.

Go figure.

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.

lamet scriptures

Guest post from my husband: For Whom the Bell Does Not Toll

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.

roswell atruim
Winter concert in the Roswell Park atrium taken while I waited for Dona to finish a CAT scan

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.

Mission Objectives
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.


Dona needed a new plan for metastatic cancer
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.

© 2007 by Robert L. Lynn
Permission to publish the poem has been requested