Monday, September 12, 2011

In the Shadow of Your Wings

 Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful, for I have taken refuge in you; in the shadow of your wings will I take refuge until this time of trouble has gone by.
Psalm 57:1 Book of Common Prayer

Shadow has so many meanings. We don’t want one to show up on a CATscan. We may fear the shadow of death. We don’t want cancer to follow us as a shadow.
And yet, during chemo—and for the fair-skinned among us, all the time—we seek the shadow of a tree. We’re the ones always asking friends if we could move into the shade. Shadow isn’t always a negative concept. In this verse, we take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings.
I had a professor once who suggested that if we call Jesus the Lamb of God, we could also address him as Hen of My Heart. She was referring to the passage in the gospels where Jesus anguishes over Jerusalem, saying he wanted to gather her inhabitants the way a hen shelters her brood (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). Jesus wants us to be sheltered and safe, even during cancer.
This month is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. You won’t see the marketplace flooded with teal, or newspapers printed on teal paper. Ovarian cancer is deadlier than breast cancer, but it doesn’t claim as many women. We don’t have Susan G. Komen’s foundation. Ovarian cancer is different than breast cancer—there’s no screening test (though they’re working on it) and no self-exams. It often hides among all the folds of a woman’s body until Stage III or IV, when it is harder to defeat. The symptoms sound like any number of things, including aging: bloating, pelvic discomfort, digestive troubles, frequent urination. Detecting ovarian cancer, the Great Mimic, often requires multiple false starts—no, it’s not a UTI, or a gall bladder issue, or menopause.
Yesterday we had our annual walk; my only contribution for several years now has been merely to show up. In some ways, it’s hard even to do that. We talk of those women we’ve loved and lost, who should still be among us; we monitor each other’s progress, which is not always towards health. We move away from the afternoon sun to sit in the shelter house.
I asked a friend how she was. “Okay, I think,” she said. “But you never know.” She expressed what we all feel. Cancer is insidious; both of us could face recurrences at our next check-ups, even though we felt and looked fine yesterday. During the progress of our disease, we will always need shelter under the wings of God, a safe, dry place to rest.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Sin and Illness

I said, “Lord be merciful to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.”
Psalm 41:4 Book of Common Prayer

            Since at least biblical times, it’s been tempting to link misfortune and sin. When Job’s friends came to comfort him, they offered the standard wisdom of the day—confess what you have done to deserve this, and be healed. When Job maintained that he was innocent, his friends didn’t believe him. Confronted with a blind man, Jesus’s own disciples asked who had sinned, the man or his parents, that he should have been born blind. (This has always struck me as illogical—how much sin can an unborn baby commit in utero to “deserve” a disease or deformity?)
            In our own time, Rabbi Kushner struck a nerve with the publication of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. We somehow can’t believe that good people get misfortunes they “don’t deserve.” I have a friend whose first response on learning she had cancer was, What did I do wrong?
            When cancer strikes us or someone we love, it may be tempting to look for a direct cause. I struggled with this when my mother’s cancer was discovered. It was hard for me not to blame her for the decades of smoking, to instead consider environmental factors such as working with lead paint or airplane glue as a younger woman, or biological factors such as her father’s death of cancer. When we are in pain, we want someone or something to serve as a blameworthy target.
Jesus told his disciples that no one had sinned to cause the man’s blindness, but that his affliction would be an occasion for the works of God to be manifest. And then he opened the man’s eyes. For some of us, healing will be elusive until the final healing that we call death. But even in the midst of sickness, we can look for ways to show forth God’s work. I’m grateful, in this month that my ovarian cancer is highlighted for awareness, for my doctor and nurses, for the drugs that have kept the cells from mutating again so far, and for all the kindness others have shown to me. My two cancers are not a punishment from God, but a new way to see God’s hand at work through others.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Healing Heartbreak, Binding Wounds

[God] heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
Psalm 147:3, Book of Common Prayer

Cancer is heartbreaking, whether it happens in our own body or in the body of someone we love. Even with relatively non-dangerous cancers, like my Stage 1 bladder cancer, there is the heartbreak in knowing that life will never be the same. I will be regularly checked for the rest of my life. Missing a scope means potentially missing a cancer that could become aggressive and angry at being ignored.
Wounds come from our surgeries, from the removal of tumors and affected body parts. We may carry the literal scars of those surgeries all our lives; we may also experience the psychical scars of post-traumatic stress disorder, of grief for our loss. While we don’t usually speak of chemotherapy or radiation as wounds, we know that our body is not whole. 
Modern medicine and pharmacology have done wonders in cancer treatment, even though it’s still barbaric. I have no doubt that twenty or thirty years ago, my Stage III ovarian cancer would have killed me. Few medical practitioners, however, have the time or training to help us with our broken hearts and our wounds. Fewer of them have been there themselves, and a male doctor can never know what it means to lose a womb or a breast.
Therapy is a helpful tool; I began meeting with a therapist, herself a cancer survivor, a few months after I finished chemo. I needed someone who understood—as good and kind as my doctor and nurses were, as supportive as my priest and my other friends were, I needed to be able to express the things I couldn’t to those who knew me. I remember what a relief it was to talk about death, openly, without fearing a friend would misunderstand or worry. In the women’s cancer support group I joined, too, I found understanding that only another cancer patient could offer.
Ultimately, however, only God does the healing and binding. Various tools may aid in accomplishing this work: the support of others, being in nature, time passing (especially without recurrence), prayer. God is not bound to use one or another of them, but we can trust that God is at work.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Looking for the Face of God

Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come before you; hide not your face from me in the day of my trouble.
Psalm 102:1, Book of Common Prayer

            I grew up singing hymns, many of them great tunes coupled with dreadful lyrics. There were also some exceptionally lovely hymns, with a theology and melody I can still appreciate. This verse from the psalms brings one of them to mind; Edward Mote wrote the words to “The Solid Rock.” The third verse begins, “When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace.” I cling to this idea—God does not turn away or hide the divine face from us, but darkness can obscure it. (Somehow we never have a problem thinking God has hidden from us when everything is going well.)
            Like most of the country, we’ve had odd weather here in my village this summer. I’ve seen the most amazing cloud formations presaging a storm, dark mounds with sunlight—glorious and bright—just behind them. The sun didn’t go anywhere; it was simply obscured.
            Many things can veil the face of God for us: sheer pain, weariness, lack of nourishment (because during treatment nothing appeals or tastes good), boredom because of enforced rest, and fear all come quickly to mind. Perhaps the sympathy and understanding expected from friends and family, whom we count on to be the hands and feet of God, isn’t there, or wears out when our disease refuses to remain in remission and continues over years instead of months.
            Then it’s tempting to believe God has turned away from us, that there’s some heavenly hide-and-seek game going on. But God doesn’t play games. God is utterly and completely for us, always not only by our side, but also on our side.
Here’s all I know—there’s something big going on. I’m just a small part in it, no more important than the cardinal that just landed on the tree outside my window, but no less dear to God the Unhidden One, either.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The No's of God

Be merciful to me, O Lord, for you are my God; I call upon you all the day long.
Psalm 86:3, Book of Common Prayer

            The hard truth is this: I can call upon God all day and all night, and I believe God hears me. But sometimes the answer is still no.

            • No, it’s not just a big benign tumor; it’s cancer.
            • No, that shadow isn’t scar tissue; it’s a second cancer.
            • No, you’ve got tumors in your bladder again, and again, and again, and again.
• No, you didn’t get the job you’d applied for, the one that would pay your health insurance.

            I’ve never claimed to be flexible; I’ve always been a person who prefers having things her own way. Living alone is a guarantee for the small things like when dishes get done or how much clutter is tolerable. Although my part-time job allows me some flexibility, I don’t have final say over my schedule or my work. And that’s certainly true on freelance projects, where I am told no far too often for my liking.
            The important thing is not to stop calling out to God. Getting my own way isn’t nearly as important as being heard. I try not to gripe too much to my friends—it gets old, and it’s the same old, same old: the bladder cancer is back; the freelance work has again dried up. I suppose most of us have a few repetitive concerns. I know parents, for example, whose children—at 8 or 28—are their constant concern.
            Hanging onto the belief that God cares about me and my problems is a matter of faith. It isn’t always easy. I have to keep backing up to what I know—the angel told his parents that Jesus would be Emmanuel, God with us. Writing in Romans 8, Saint Paul affirms that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway? Paul had first-hand experience with some of the dividing forces he mentions: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. Yet he remained convinced that we have God’s love in the midst and through all of this.
            Surviving cancer isn’t always easy, and there are likely to be resounding nos along the way. But we can continue to call on God all day long, knowing God is there, listening.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Faithfully Afflicted?

 It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.
Psalm 119:71 Book of Common Prayer

I know, O Lord, that your judgments are right and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
Psalm 119:75 Book of Common Prayer

During the late winter of my sixth grade year I was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis—my doctor said idiopathic meant no idiot knew what caused it. I spent almost two years in a full body brace; the treatment was largely ineffective. Next came surgery to fuse vertebrae (this was before the doctors began using steel rods, so bone was taken from a hip) followed by six months in a plaster cast that enveloped my torso. This wasn’t the best way to go through puberty.
I searched long and hard for a reason this had happened to me. Various ideas suggested themselves, but the only one I came to rely on was expressed in these verses—that God in wisdom had afflicted me for some purpose not to be explained, but probably having to do with sin. (Sin was a big topic within the fundamentalism I grew up in.) I didn’t tell anyone my theory, except a Sunday school teacher, who told me that God never punishes little children. I knew she was wrong; even then, I knew the story of the bears that came and ate up the children who mocked Elisha. Not until I was in my late thirties did work with a therapist to address the damage done to my psyche during those “lost years.”
I have given up fundamentalism and its insistence on biblical literalism. I do believe the Bible is a holy book, a compilation of sacred writing, with wisdom to share. But I do not believe it is to be read literally. When I read and interpret the Bible in its historical and cultural context, I have discovered that it opens up the text as well as my heart.
So I’m sorry about the psalmist and whatever affliction he had to bear. I cannot believe in or worship a god whose teaching methods include afflicting the student. I cannot accept the notion that my cancers are a gift, a lesson, or a means of discipline from God—perhaps you can. I believe in a God who companions me, who takes suffering into the divine hands, as Psalm 10:14 says. My faith is in a God who is here with me, who wills good to come out of afflictions of all sorts.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Supportive Family—or not

I have become a stranger to my own kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.
Psalm 69:9, Book of Common Prayer

            I know that this verse has been applied to Christ, but when it was written, it applied to the life of the writer. We can’t know what the situation was; I’m fairly sure it wasn’t cancer, though cancer has been found even in dinosaur fossil remains. But the sense of being a stranger, an alien—bald heads, anyone?—is very much part of my experience of cancer. The disease separated me from the land of the well and gave me a whole new vocabulary, as well as an empathy for people’s sufferings that I’d not had B.C., before cancer.
            Until I got a part-time job at a place where almost nobody knew about my cancer, I didn’t appreciate how lovely it would be to have a cancer-free zone. I know people who have made their homes into sanctuaries where no one speaks of cancer. One friend said she’d come home from treatment, go to her bedroom and close the door—maybe for a day or two. Her kids and her husband coped, and just said, “Mom’s in her room.”
            I know other people who have relied on the excellent care and strength of family members. Another friend had a sister who, with her husband’s blessing, took the sick woman into her home for the last few years of her life. For many people, family is a compelling reason to stay alive. A third friend wanted to see her last child graduate from high school; others want to be here for grandchildren.
            When I received my diagnosis, my first thought was, Thank God my mother is already dead—this would kill her. I had left home at 18 and never returned for longer than vacations, holidays, and summers of grad school. So I didn’t feel close to the rest of the family. I bungled telling my brother—I found out, after all, the week before Christmas, and he already had multiple stressors at work. That was how I rationalized asking his wife to tell him. They sent a lovely care package and called regularly, rejoicing when things went well.
Assisted by Hallmark and other greeting card companies, we put a lot of freight on families. We may have expectations of them that are unreasonable, given our particular set of circumstances. We may be reluctant to be a burden, relying on a willing rota of friends or a system our faith community has instead.
            There is no right, wrong, or normal when it comes to cancer and the way our families respond.
We’re all just doing the best we can.