Finding God in Cancer

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Five years after my first battle with breast cancer, a new one struck. There it was: a dime-sized tumor, spotted by my doctor even though the rest of my right colon was difficult to see. “How presumptuous of me to think that because I had cancer once there would never be another,” I thought after the initial shock. Later, after the surgery, I was concerned I would have to have another colonoscopy right away. “It’s good news,” the surgeon told me. “You don’t have a right colon any more!”

As a child I heard the nuns say that when something doesn’t go your way, you should offer it up for the poor souls in purgatory. This approach worked well when my mother bought me colored socks instead of the more expensive white ones I preferred. Or when I had to give a bath to four of my nine younger siblings instead of reading a Nancy Drew novel about the girl whose housekeeper did all the chores.

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But the first surgery for the breast cancer had been so painful I created an alternative system to give it value. Whenever I felt a pain I would turn it into a prayer for someone. I must have said thousands of prayers those first few months! I called it transformational prayer.

During that time I attended a luncheon where a Catholic author gave me one of his books. When I told him of my diagnosis he advised, “Look for God.” So I decided to look for signs of God in ordinary events. I found plenty.

First it was in the operating room. I was so nervous my heart was racing. The anesthesiologist said, “You’re very nervous.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

“I often have that effect on women,” he replied.

“Well, you are pretty cute,” I observed.

“Oh, don’t say that,” the nurse shot back. “Don’t make his head any bigger than it already is.” Then she put her hand on my arm. I will never forget how that simple human touch made the nervousness wash away.

My 89-year-old dad was able to visit the hospital twice, thanks to the efforts of his home health aide, Phil. Then my son Erich showed up four times within one week. I think my three grandsons were shocked to see Grandma walking down the hallway of the hospital holding a bag of urine. The following week they went to work on my lawn, another small source of joy.

There was the beauty of my own bed after sleepless nights in the hospital where the nurses came in to ask the woman in the bed next to me, “Are you comfortable?” And I never went hungry. In fact, the refrigerator was always packed with every type of good food. My neighbor Joan turned out to be an angel in disguise, doing laundry, walking the dog and bringing good cheer.

One Day at a Time

But I must admit I was not too pleased when I learned about the new cancer; this time I knew well what the side effects of the chemotherapy would be. It wasn’t going to be pretty. That constant feeling of “blah” is hard to take. How was I going to find the value in this cross?

There’s the effect called “chemo brain.” The mind gets jumbled. Six years ago during chemo I couldn’t find the phone. Hours later I opened the refrigerator, and voila! There it was. Chemo patients all understand this. At a meeting one day, I said, “I’ll see you next Wednesday,” although the meetings are on Thursday. The group laughed. I am convinced that being able to laugh is a huge chunk of finding God in the ordinary.

But before the chemo was barely in swing, an extraordinary event occurred. My sister Connie and I were talking one day about second opinions. “You have to get one for the colon cancer,” she said, so I went to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. A month later a call came, to tell me there was something odd about my ovaries. It was a third cancer.

I joked that God heard of my dislike of chemo, so this time he sent me a cancer that did not require it. The news also spurred another attitude, to have fun regardless of where I was. Outside the operating room, the nurse putting in the I.V. told me to clench my fist. But the arthritis in my hand made it impossible to get the middle finger down. We were cracking up.

The day after my hysterectomy I was walking around the block. There’s something very therapeutic about walking, even when your body is telling you, “I can’t do it.” It brings a refreshment of the soul and an energy that endures beyond that half-hour of moving, regardless of the treatment you’re in.

It also seems God is especially present in nature. As I was riding in a car after being trapped at home for several days, seeing the spring flowers for the first time that season lifted my spirits incredibly. Every day now I sit outside and look at the clouds in their never-ending variety.

Any treatment certainly encourages humility, and maybe some other benefits as well. Perhaps God uses suffering for his own purposes, and the secret is to find out what that purpose is. If it is greater patience (perhaps that’s why we are called patients), that too is a good.

But what about the suffering that goes on and on? I think of the 23-year-old nurse I met who will be on chemotherapy for the rest of his life because of a rare condition. We can only assume that God has some purpose for such hardship, which we cannot understand. It is often said that people who have endured enormous suffering are very close to God. But as the Carmelite martyr Father Titus Brandsma said about Auschwitz, it is not the kind of thing one longs for.

During the first cancer I had lost all my white blood cells several times and had to stay home for five days each time, waiting for them to grow back. I called the counselor at a cancer support service.

“I just can’t take it,” I said. “There are so many things I want to do, and I can’t do any of them!”

He replied, “Just live today. Don’t bother thinking about tomorrow, or yesterday. Focus on just one day. And keep saying this mantra. ‘I’m right where I belong. I’m right where I’m supposed to be.’” He was right. The mantra works when I’m emptying the dishwasher or taking the dog out for the thousandth time. I will keep saying it during my recuperation from the lung cancer surgery that’s coming soon, another reminder of how important it is to try to live in the moment. Detecting this, my fourth cancer, was another extraordinary event. I try to be thankful that we caught it. And I will continue to look for the resurrection after the cross.

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