To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me . . . . Protect my life and deliver me; let me not be put to shame, for I have trusted in you.
Psalm 25: 1, 19
When I was a child, cancer was a word that was only whispered, not to be discussed in polite company. Although my favorite aunt had breast cancer when I was a teenager, we didn’t talk about the disease. Although we saw her squeezing a rubber ball she used to regain muscle strength after surgery, we didn’t discuss the surgery. We still don’t. I have no idea how extensive her surgery was.
Now the word cancer is everywhere, just one more term among the list of topics banned from conversation during the 1950s. And yet, there is still—I hope only among people of my generation and older—a tendency to wrap ourselves in tattered remnants of the old idea: cancer is a shameful disease, something you brought on yourself. She wouldn’t have gotten lung cancer if she hadn’t smoked. If he didn’t drink, he wouldn’t have liver cancer. You should have had more children; I heard there’s a link between number of children and ovarian cancer. Or you’re suspected of having a secret rage that brought on this disease. Only Type A, angry people get cancer; despite the sunny demeanor you’ve shown the world, there must be some hidden part of you that smolders like Vesuvius, erupting as cancer. You must really be a person of little or no faith, because if you had faith, the disease would disappear. There are many documented cases of prayer curing cancer—what’s the matter with your faith? The whisperings go on behind your back—or maybe escape in rage and despair to your face.
Recurrences offer an opportunity for us to turn the shame on ourselves with more useless questions without answers. Why didn’t I take better care of myself, eat better, exercise more?
All of these accusations, voiced or not, make us almost long for our next chemo or radiation treatment. There were can be among people who understand that having cancer is bad enough without adding shame or blame to it. Shame is a useless emotion. Anger has its uses—it can be a great fuel—but shame just debilitates us further. And nobody wins the Blame Game.
I want to believe in a benevolent God who shares my concerns, who has a plan. I may not be at the center of that plan, as I’d been taught to believe as a child. I may simply be part of something bigger going on, a minor character in the drama of someone else’s story. If cancer has a higher purpose (and I am not entirely sure that it does) then perhaps that purpose is for someone else: a caregiver, a family member, a parishioner, a doctor or nurse. Contrary to my deepest instincts, it’s not always about me.
When these negative emotions arise or are hurled our way, the only thing we can do is lift up our soul to God. We need to trust that God is holding us through this experience and will spare us from our “enemies”: cancer cells and misguided friends alike.