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.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Firm and Fixed Heart

My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed. I will sing and make melody.
Psalm 57: 7 Book of Common Prayer
 How did the psalmist do it, this fixing of the heart? (The fixing here is a steadfastness, not a repair job.) My heart has been all over the place lately, striving for gratitude and getting grumbling instead. Trapped in a heat-wave producing dome that has already taken the lives of some two dozen people in the Midwest, worried about my insurance and about job-juggling that’s about to get more complicated, pining for a vacation, my poor heart has been busy, but hardly fixed.
            As I thought about this, I remembered a collect (a prayer to gather our thoughts before worship begins) from the Anglican tradition. I’m putting it here in the old English, even though we don’t speak like this and my church uses the modern collects, just for the beauty of the language.

O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
           Clearly, the psalmist did not have the Book of Common Prayer handy. Perhaps the writer did know the key in this prayer, however. Love what God commands and desire God’s promises. Jesus summed up God’s commands as love God and love neighbor (Matthew 22:36-39). I’m not so sure what God’s promises entail, but I’d opt to include one of my favorites—Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). If I think and act in a loving manner—hmm, which I wasn’t yesterday—and if I remember that God is present no matter what, then perhaps my heart will stabilize.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Broken Pot

 I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; I am as useless as a broken pot.
Psalm 31: 12

            The psalmist is human, and so gets in gloomy moods, just as we do. I think the writer is overstating the case. Today is the day we buried my mother, thirteen years ago; she is not forgotten. I hear her voice often, and the older I grow, the more I understand some of her ways. I find myself apologizing for not grasping sooner the toll age and disease can take on a body or a mind.
            As for the broken pot—well, it just depends on what you want it for. If the pot has only one purpose, and it’s too broken for that purpose, then yes, it’s useless. Broken things call forth creativity. I remember in college reading an essay in the Crack-up, a collection of pieces by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He speaks of the uses of a cracked plate, which is how he thought of himself by the time he wrote that essay. You could put leftovers in the fridge on a cracked plate, even if you wouldn’t use it at a company dinner.
            Cancer can make us feel, for the moment, forgotten or useless, but only for as long as we allow it. If I’m too tired to do anything requiring physical effort, I can pray for others. That’s not nothing. Even now, in remission, some nights if I have trouble sleeping, I start with friends on the East Coast and move west, praying for them in geographical order. I generally get to sleep by the time I reach the Mississippi. I have friends who knit warm hats and scarves for folks at the local St. Vincent de Paul.
We’re so used to measuring our worth by what we do that we forget to be. We forget that friends and family love us for who we are, not for what we do for them. It’s my mother’s kindness that I miss, her wry sense of humor, her street smarts, her creativity. And yes, her Christmas baking and the roses and tomatoes she tended, but those aren’t the first things that come to mind.
Many years ago, a pastor told me, “If a thing’s valuable enough, you fix it, you don’t throw it away.” He wasn’t talking about broken pots; he was talking about me, in one of the lowest, most difficult times of my life. Jesus said we are valuable to God, more than sparrows, more than broken pots. Cancer does not render us useless; we remain God’s beloved children.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Future

 Mark those who are honest; observe the upright; for there is a future for the peaceable.
Psalm 37: 39, Book of Common Prayer

It would be presumptuous to call myself honest, upright, or peaceable, though I do try in each area. And I’m past the stage of “claiming” Bible verses for my own ends, although that practice served me well for many years. This morning, a few days after seeing my gynecologic oncologist, I focused on the amazing words there is a future.
            Other people have believed that I had a future, and a long one at that, when I found it impossible to believe. Tuesday marked some sort of turning point; my doctor said he expected me to continue to do well. This seems a step up from “cautiously optimistic,” which is what he said six months ago. We are making plans for annual visits rather than visits measured in single-digit months.
            I’m elated, of course, but also dazed. Cancer has been so much a part of my life for the past five years that it’s hard to imagine it being merely an annual event. It’s a bit like being finished with chemotherapy and being happy but unsure of what to do next. Without my chemo nurse two of every three weeks, weekly blood draws, anti-nausea meds, and regular confabs with the doctor, who was I?
            Cancer was like a cloak wrapped around me, though not a comfortable one. Perhaps a hairshirt would be a better symbol—it was scratchy, it was hot, it had fleas that bit me—except that I didn’t don it willingly and it certainly did nothing to improve my nature. Or the brace I wore for my scoliosis during middle school—that carapace on my torso became so much a part of me that I had to re-learn how to walk and move after the post-op cast was removed. And, oh, yes! I was lighter.
            That’s how I feel: lighter, freer. The recurrent-but-not-dangerous bladder cancer apparently is going to be with me always, requiring attention and vigilance. But the scary cancer, the one that could have claimed my life, seems to be resting; I’m afraid to use the words gone or cured. Too many women recur, even eight or ten years later.
            No one can be sure of a future. Life is far less predictable than we like to think. But on this sunny summer morning, with a lawnmower buzzing in the neighborhood and a cat asleep in the chair next to mine, I believe that I have one.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Level Ground

My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the Lord.
Psalm 26:12

Mountains are awe-inspiring, but I don’t much like them. I’m a prairie person and not fond of cities; I like to see where I am and where I’m going, and both mountains and skyscrapers get in the way. I don’t even like jutting sidewalks broken up by tree roots.
Israel is hilly country, so I can only imagine the comfort that standing on level ground gave to the psalmist. Terra firma, we call it, ignoring the possibility of earthquakes.
            This afternoon I returned to level ground after the funhouse-like effect of seeing a check-up for ovarian cancer on my calendar. I’ve spent the last few days feeling much as I did when trying to walk the first time I put on bifocals—the sidewalks kept coming up to meet me, the stairs were located in odd places. Perspective was skewed, if not lost.
            Yesterday, for example, I couldn’t find my driver’s license. It was in my purse, right where it was supposed to be, but I couldn’t see it. I was also having a mini-meltdown over my cat finding a second mouse in the kitchen. My stomach was upset. All because I was meeting my gynecologic oncologist, a man I adore—he did save my life, after all—who probably didn’t have bad news for me.
            Indeed, he did not. I am fine, he is pleased, and we will continue our twice-yearly meetings until January 2013, after which I will come only once a year in perpetuity. I enjoy talking with him—he’s one of those doctors who actually comes into the room, sits down, and doesn’t take his eyes off the patient. We cover other, non-cancer-related topics. He sometimes asks about my writing.
            Tonight I was privileged to talk to another woman who grew up in my hometown, one of the Midwest Rust belt cities. All the belts were whirring, the factories spewing toxins into the air and our child-bodies. She still lives in the area, and told me that studies were being done in the south part of town, because people there are dying prematurely. Her father died of a disease he got working in one of the factories.
            I am, in so many ways, one of the lucky ones, blessed beyond belief.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Firm and Steady Heart

[Those who fear the Lord] are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.
Psalm 112:7 8

My church celebrates Christmas in July, always on the second Sunday of the month. It’s a reminder that the Christ comes among us when we aren’t ready and aren’t expecting Him. It’s a chance to sing the beloved carols and pass the light of Christ through the congregation once more—not in the deep darkness of midwinter, but on a sunny summer morning. It’s also an excuse for us to bring bags of children’s underwear and socks to the creche for Jesus, in his incarnation as the most vulnerable among us, the children. Later in the summer or early fall, our priest visits the local elementary schools with these gifts; the schools stock and distribute them as they see the need. And they do see it; we are a downtown church in one of the poorer neighborhoods of the city.
We depart from the lectionary on this Sunday, hearing instead the Christmas readings. I could probably quote most of Luke 2 from memory, but the story was new again this morning. My priest referred to the angels’ greeting: Fear not. Notice, she said, the angels didn’t say there was nothing to be afraid of. Just, Fear not.
I thought of other places in Scripture when people were told not to be afraid. The judge Gideon came to mind, threshing wheat secretly for fear of the enemy when he was told to take courage and deliver his people. There was reason to fear, but the command overrode reason.
This is a good message for me, two days before my twice-a-year checkup for the dangerous cancer, the one that gave me about a 50-50 chance of being alive in five years. (My gynecologic oncologist says the stats are wrong, but still, that’s what a woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer will read on the Internet.) I am four years out from the end of my chemo regimen without a recurrence. Yet. I feel fine, but I’ve learned that’s no guarantee.
I tell myself I’ve gotten better about being so scared by these check-ups. I used to call as soon as the office might reasonably be expected to have blood test results. There is no test for ovarian cancer, but there is a blood marker, the CA125. Not every woman is sensitive to this marker, but I am. So to call ahead of my appointment to hear that my CA125 is at 12 (under 30 is deemed “normal”) was just a way to remove pressure. But I didn’t call after the blood draw last week. I am waiting until Tuesday. And I flatter myself that I am not acting crazy in the meantime.
Fear not, the angels said, because there’s great joy in this child born to us. In the other birth story, Matthew calls him Emmanuel, God with us. I expect a good report this week; regardless of the test results, however, God is with me, and the proper response is not to fear.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The God Who Hides

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
Psalm 10:1

These questions can haunt us during the worst of our dealings with cancer or any other difficulty. After being widowed, becoming an empty nester, and losing the mother whom she’d cared for, my mother once told me, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person on the planet.” God seems far away, playing some cosmic game of hide-and-seek. Except it feels as if we’re not going to find God or to be found.
Although the questions may be perfectly valid in expressing how we feel, and we do need to express those feelings, I think they are the wrong questions. God does not play games with us. God loves us with a love we cannot begin to imagine and does not wish us pain—not even, as some would have it, to test us or to make us better. (I know people who claim to be better persons for having had cancer, but cancer’s had the opposite effect on me. I am a crabbier person with this disease.)
Instead of perceiving God as far away and hiding, we need to refocus and look for God in unexpected places. King Lear says that he and his daughter will “take upon ’s the mystery of things As if we were God’s spies.” Maybe it’s not that God hides, but that God delights in costumes.
Yesterday, for example, God showed up as a friend bearing a zucchini and black raspberries, as a magnificent rainbow after a downpour, and in a bright quarter moon so dazzling it competed with the fireworks display.
My problem is that sometimes I want to hand God my script of how my life should go. But God isn’t interested in following my scripts. God may be the ultimate improv artist, ready to do something amazing with whatever I toss out, or to toss a line to me to see what I will do with it. In the medieval period, this relationship was considered the Great Dance. It’s about moving to whatever music we hear, whether it’s Samuel Barber’s haunting “Adagio for Strings” or a rollicking Irish gig. It’s about trusting that Someone is there.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Cure for a Broken Heart

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

When we are first diagnosed, the emphasis is almost totally on the physical aspects of cancer: remove the tumor and as many affected body parts as possible, treat with chemotherapy or radiation, have blood work and scans to chart progress. The effects of treatment are concentrated in the physical realm as well—manage the nausea, deal with the hair loss, adjust to the neuropathy or tinnitus.
            Sometimes the hospital may have a social worker, counselor, or support group as part of the package deal. I went to a therapist who was also a cancer survivor soon after I finished chemo. I didn’t see how I could manage one more thing during the treatment itself, or I’d have gone sooner. Too often, people are told unhelpful things: Be glad you’re alive or Hair grows back. We are asked to be complacent, if not downright cheerful, about having cancer.
            For us and for our caregivers, though, a broken heart may be part of the picture. No matter how early the cancer was caught, there’s the tiny fear of not living out our days, not finishing the work we’ve been given to do, whether it’s raising our children, being there for grandchildren, or some wider ministry.
            I’ve been dealing with cancer for five years now, and I still haven’t gotten used to the sadness and fear. My heart is broken, not for my own children or grandchildren (I have neither), but for the children at church I may not live to see grown. I ache for the carefree days of feeling fine and assuming I would remain so indefinitely. I miss the freedom of not having regular check-ups and procedures, not worrying about the outcomes.
            It’s hard to talk about this with anyone except other cancer survivors or trained therapists, because people who haven’t had cancer don’t, and can’t, understand. My gynecologic oncologist teaches at a local university, in addition to maintaining his practice. He told me once that he instructs the students, “Never tell a woman you understand what she’s going through. You don’t, and it’s insulting.”
            So we are left to mend our broken hearts as best we can. The good news is that we are not alone in this effort. God is with us, able to heal the heart, bind up the wounds. The scar from my major surgery has faded, but the psychical scars are still there. Those are the ones that only God can deal with.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Father-Mother Care

 Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.
Psalm 103:13, King James Version
The mother’s service is nearest, readiest and surest: nearest because it is most natural, readiest because it is most loving, and surest because it is truest.
Julian of Norwich, Showings, Long text, ch. 60

            A little background: I learned to sing the psalm’s words when I was in high school choir. John Ness Beck’s arrangement (which has become a staple in church and school choirs) echoes in my head when I come to this psalm. I was in my forties before I read Julian of Norwich, who has garnered a lot of contemporary attention because of her theology of Christ as our Mother.
            Yesterday before I left for my surgery, Beck’s music was playing in my head. I had time to listen to a high school choir perform it on YouTube, so that the loveliness stayed with me. I believe in a father’s loving care—I was a Daddy’s girl, after all. I like men, but in the past five years especially, it’s the care of a motherly woman that I want as I deal with cancer.
            My mother has been gone now for more than a decade, but I am blessed in my motherly friends, not all of whom are female. I pushed away a lot of offers for help during chemo, which was nothing but pride. Some of those offers came from men; however, I’ve found the company of women to be more soothing in general.
            A surgery date brings out the best in these maternal friends. One called the night before this surgery, just to see how my spirits were. She also came to spend time with me last night, with groceries in hand. One friend called the morning of surgery to tell me she’d be thinking of me. Another friend took me to the hospital and waited, then drive me home and spent a few hours with me so I wouldn’t be alone, despite the fact that this was an outpatient surgery. My priest, who is a woman, asks me to call after each surgery. One of the nurturing males in my life called to see how the procedure went and how I was feeling.
            I kept thinking about these texts, however, and all the women who ferried me to chemo sessions, waited during procedures and surgeries, brought food, made prayer shawls, did my dishes, and told me I’d make it. They have been the feminine face of God for me, showing the compassion of a mother.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Life Preserver

Great is your compassion, O LORD; preserve my life, according to your judgments.
Psalm 119:156, Book of Common Prayer

            I had a mini-meltdown in the kitchen this morning, which only served to remind me how much energy it takes to keep my emotional hatches battened down the rest of the time. Last night when I got home from work, there was one message telling me that surgery Friday was backed up half an hour. That meant I could sleep a bit later, but also meant that I had to change plans with my driver. The details of arranging things for surgery are niggling annoyances. 
            And then there was the other call, from someone in my gynecologic oncologist’s office, who left no message except her name and phone call.
            It was too late to call back. I convinced myself that it had to be a schedule change, with no relationship to the CATscan I’d had last week. I remembered the time a nurse in his office had called to say the doctor wanted to talk to me. I nearly died of fright. At least, I told myself, it wasn’t himself calling. I didn’t want to learn that my surgery had to be postponed altogether because something bigger and badder was going on in my abdominal cavity. Or to find out—and of course this had to be it—that the pain in my hips in the morning had nothing to do with aging and everything to do with end stage bone cancer.
            When the office opened, I called, but the woman who called wasn’t in and the nurse who answered didn’t know why that woman had called. She confirmed the date and time of my appointment and gave me the woman’s voice mail. I left a message, and she called back within a few minutes.
            Nurses, hospital staff, and even doctors are all human. She was calling merely to find out if I had kept my appointment with the bladder guy. She didn’t see the note that my gyn onc had already called to talk to him, not until that very minute on the phone with me. I could connect the dots—the tumors the bladder guy is removing on Friday showed up on the CATscan, and my gyn onc was making sure everyone knew they were there. Sometimes I love him for his attention to detail; sometimes I wish he’d take a vacation, be a little less dedicated.
            I asked this woman to put a note in my file saying I lived alone and had an active imagination and that all future calls were to be specific. The HIPPA privacy rules mean that no detailed messages are left, unless I make it clear that I want such things. She apologized profusely; I told her my heart rate was returning to normal.
            I took a lot of deep breaths and got on with my morning routine. At the healing service at church, my priest spoke of how we don’t need to go it alone, a sermon just for me. I went forward to be anointed and prayed for; the other women hugged me and assured me of prayers. But all day, my body has been upset. It had faced news of a recurrence of the dangerous cancer, even if the news was fabricated in my own mind, and it wasn’t happy.
            Instead, I was thrown the life preserver of God’s loving compassion, mediated through good people around me. I don’t suppose it’s a coincidence that all this occurred on a morning when I was already headed to church. If it had been bad news, there would have been people to help me through it. I am not alone.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Reality of Surgery

I know I’m headed to surgery, have known it for weeks. But it gets a little more real when I have to stop taking my fish oil and Vitamin E supplements a week before the event, a date I’ve reached. Any anti-inflammatory OTC meds are verboten as well, but I don’t keep a stock of “pain relievers.” I’ve learned to live with a bit of pain and to treat it with fresh air and walks, with massage, reiki, and acupuncture.
My pre-surgical instructions, along with the usual ban on eating or drinking after midnight the night before surgery, also call for stopping over-the-counter herbal supplements. That means, I suppose, no cinnamon (to regulate blood sugar) or red yeast rice (to help with my tending-toward-high blood pressure). I’m a little confused about this, so am taking a week off from all the vitamins and supplements I take.
But I really know I’m going to surgery when I start dreaming about it, as I did recently. In that dream, surgery was canceled, though I showed up, which is when I found out that my doctor had decided to deal with the tumors in his office, one per visit, one visit per week. This would stretch my dealings with him to seven or eight weeks, which angered me in the dream. Not because he’s a bad guy, but because of what it would cost.
Maybe that was the crux of the issue. I’ve received estimated bills for his services, as well as bills for the last two office visits. I do have insurance, albeit with a high deductible I’ll be able to meet. I still have a 20 percent co-pay, however, and that gets pricey. Bye-bye summer vacation.
That’s what I resent—along with the lack of ever being free of the disease— the feeling of being unable to count on discretionary funds again. They will all go to the good people keeping me alive.
Last night I ran into a nice man I rarely see, and the first thing he said was, “I haven’t seen you in awhile. Did you beat the cancer?”
I try not to be bitter, but I heard myself say, “You don’t beat cancer. It beats you.” I truly believe that, not only because I’ve had so many friends die of it, but also because it’s a wearing-out disease. Having cancer places an enormous emotional stress on us, and it’s not easy to share that burden. Our loved ones have their own burdens of “What if I lost her/him?” or “How can I help?” We don’t want to talk to strangers about it. Most people who haven’t had cancer don’t really get what it means. So we join support groups or go to counseling or seek spiritual direction, all of which can help. But in the reality of Dream Time, we know the reality that surgery is coming soon.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lying About It

 For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
Psalm 51:7, Book of Common Prayer

I lied my way through church this morning. I figure when people ask, “How are you?” it’s just a social thing. Unless people already know what’s going on, the expected answer is, “Fine, and you?” I rationalize that it might be different if I were—God forbid—on chemo and bald again, but very few people at church even know about the second cancer, much less that Friday will be my fifth surgery for it.
That I attended church all during chemo reflects no special virtue on my part. I’m wired for religion, always have been. There’s strength in church, just by being in a building where prayer has been offered for more than a century. There’s beauty in the words of the liturgy and the hymns. Which is why I went this morning, when my body told me to stay home and listen to the rain on the roof. I went for purely selfish reasons—I wanted to sing (though I didn’t feel like it), and I wanted the strength of the gathered community, however ignorant I’ve kept most of its members about my upcoming surgery.
I’m not sorry I went, just sorry that I felt fragile and distracted throughout the service. My surgeon has told me he doubts I’d need a temporary bag after this surgery, but it’s hard to believe him, given that I’ve had one after each of the previous ones. I was thinking about what I could wear to church next week that would hide the bag I may not have. One of the children has taken to wearing a bunch of plastic bracelets on his right arm, and I thought about bringing him my ovarian cancer one. And I thought about the plastic band a nurse will slip on my wrist in five days, and how much I hate that band, the sign of my membership in the company of the unwell. One dear woman touched me lightly on the back when she passed my pew going up for Eucharist, and her gesture nearly undid me.
The closing hymn included the words attributed to Francis of Assisi, “All you that pain and sorrow bear, praise God and cast on him your care.” I lost it on that line—not, thankfully, with the immense sobs of which I am capable, but some tears trickled down my face. I wasn’t in physical pain, but I was bearing sorrow, for myself and for friends undergoing various difficulties right now.
There are teenagers in my church who love me. It’s a humbling thing. I adore them, and the fact that they come and sit with me after the service to tell me about their lives, just beginning to open, and to hug me. The problem is that they’re not stupid. One asked, “Are you all right?” Another came up, looked at my face, and wanted to know, “Why are you sad?” I gave them both the same half-truth, “Good music does this to me.” Absolutely true, just not the whole truth. I was sorry I had to lie and that I’m not as good at it as I would like to be. As we waited in the line to shake the rector’s hand, one of the young mothers in the church asked how I was. I told her I was fine, apparently believing in the idea of protecting the women and the children.
I left as soon as I could after that. There didn’t seem to be any point in hanging around to enjoy fellowship at coffee hour and tell any more lies.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Hidden Blessings

“For your hidden blessings, and for all you have in store for us . . . ”
fragment of a prayer of thanksgiving

Finding a spot in the parking deck at the hospital takes longer than getting an EKG does. (The technician was unable to explain why it’s an EKG when there’s no k in electrocardiogram.) Not willing to waste 40 miles of gasoline and time, I headed over to see “my nurses,” who took care of me during chemo.
            Perhaps you’ve seen that Sally Field movie Soapdish, in which she plays an actress no longer as popular as she once had been. When her character is depressed, her friend takes her to a mall and stages an “aren’t you ----?” The character is then mobbed and her spirits lift. The closest I get to that kind of celebrity is going to the gynecology/oncology office. I’m a wonder—a woman who hasn’t recurred in four years, who isn’t back in treatment. The nurses fuss over me and compliment me (I think it’s mostly because I have hair and some color in my cheeks). I got hugs and kisses and encouragement about the surgery next week.
            More blessings: the downtown farmers’ market was open and had fresh spinach and Yukon gold potatoes. I decided to blow off more time and to reward myself for being very good at the EKG/blood draw/urine sample session. I took back roads home, checking on the corn, much of which will be “knee-high by the Fourth of July” despite the late planting. I got to see a white-tailed deer wandering in the corn, and what may have been the largest farm vehicle I’ve ever beheld hogging the road.
The twists and turns of back roads slowed me down enough to notice two small white dogs in a yard and a robin bathing in a puddle. And yes, I stopped for ice cream at a soft-serve place, and detoured a block to drive one of my favorite streets, listening to Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and to Renee Fleming singing Mozart.
It’s true: I’m behind on my project, and if I took seriously my last rant about not having time for medical procedures, I’d have come straight home and gotten to work. And missed the hidden blessings.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Time is Money

  My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Psalm 31:15

            “I don’t have time for this!” is the cry of my heart. It’s not just that I have surgery next week, but all the things that have to be done prior to that event. Now I’ve been told to get an EKG. I’ve managed to escape one for a few surgeries, but apparently have crossed some threshold. So tomorrow I will drive 20 miles one way to my nearest hospital-I-trust for the pre-surg testing: EKG, blood work, and a urine sample, just in case I have a bad heart or an infection and don’t know it.
            “I’m fine! We don’t need to do this!” I want to tell them all, but having a cancer growing in me for perhaps five years before it presented symptoms (which my gynecologic oncologist thinks is the case for my ovarian cancer) shakes my confidence that I know what’s going on with my body. I know that the medical people have my best interests in mind—and that they also want to avoid lawsuits or the embarrassment of having me die on the table from some unsuspected heart condition.
            It’s the little things, always. I’ve been on the phone to get pre-registered for my CATscan related to the first cancer, for the surgery for my second cancer, and for the EKG, just this morning. A phone call takes less time than going in to the hospital or imaging center, but it breaks my concentration. As a freelance writer, I am nearly always trying to concentrate on something—this morning, I am way out of my league, trying to plan revisions for a piece on the International Space Station. Now, instead of getting back to work, I’m ranting on the page.
            It will all work out. I “lose” tomorrow morning to an EKG, but my editors aren’t calling for my arrest. I haven’t been able to walk in the woods, one of my preferred methods of maintaining my balance; I’ve not felt that I had time, and it’s been storming for days here. Walking would help.
“All shall be well,” Julian of Norwich says. I expect them to find nothing on the EKG, and nothing on the CATscan, and nothing to indicate an infection that would mean rescheduling surgery. I need to stop carping about the time and expense of all these tests and procedures and give thanks that modern medicine has kept me alive this long. I’ll get right on that, as soon as I have time.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Refusing Comfort

I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
Psalm 77: 1, 2 New Revised Standard Version

Not to be offered comfort is one thing, but to refuse it is entirely another. By the end of this psalm, the writer manages to crawl out of the Slough of Despond. Still, the writer does so by referring only to long-ago history of the people, not to any present comfort.
I’ve read this verse many times over the years, but this morning it stopped me completely and sent me looking at other versions. None of them offers a cheerful variation.
Only once do I recall trying to refuse comfort: when my father died. I was living a thousand miles from my parents, in my third year of teaching, all of 24 years old. The call came during first period—the school secretary came to get me out of class. I went into shock mode, staying dry-eyed and making plans until third period, when my seniors demanded to know what was going on. One of them moved to hold me, and I protested, “Don’t, Buck, I’ll cry.” But he held me and I did cry, aware that the girls in the class were crying with and for me. It’s a holy memory for me, and the last comfort I permitted in that city. I had too much vested in my image. When I returned a week later, I was “fine.”
Many of us have images to maintain. We’re the parent, who has to stay strong or the kids will get scared. We’re the spouse, trying to be strong for the beloved going through treatment. We’re the son or daughter suddenly called on to parent a parent in chemo. We’re the person who’s always had it together and can’t let down, fearing we will “flow in grief,” as Shakespeare put it.
And so we’re fine. Even in the chemo room. I watched one day as a woman admitted to chest pains and was whisked into emergency so fast it made me dizzy. When her husband stopped in later, he told the nurse, “You don’t see her at home, when she cries. It’s really hard for her, but she tries to put up a brave front here.”
Many of us did. We were ridiculously cheerful, cracking up the chemo nurse with jokes and antics. I saw a woman come in from work wearing a stylish wig, nylons and heels. I heard a woman facing recurrence say, “Well, I’ve had three good years.” And after my only chemo room meltdown, I’ve joined their ranks. I lie at church and tell people I’m fine, two weeks away from another outpatient surgery for my “nuisance” cancer. Why bother them, when this has become my way of living?
I need to think about whether this is my way of refusing comfort.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Buddying up to Barium

Her name is Sandy. For nearly five years she’s been bringing me warm blankets and wrapping me up in them while I sit in the imaging center’s waiting room, and today I finally learned her name. Leeanne I know—she’s the one who actually does the radiation work. And Kelly, who does the intake and works with me on how I’m going to pay for this procedure that we’re calling The Last CATscan. I let them all know that it needed to be clear, showing nothing except the small bladder tumors we already know are there.
            On the drive over, hungry and thirsty, I saw a bright yellow finch fly across Hilltop Road, and I took it as a good omen. But that wasn’t the case. I didn’t anticipate being put in a different waiting room—you’d think it wouldn’t matter, but I’ve always been in the same waiting room, the one with the clock so I could gauge how close I was to meeting my time goals. (One sips barium over about an hour and a half before the machine experience; one does not gulp.) I didn’t expect that the barium would upset my empty tummy and intensify the “What? No caffeine this morning?” headache, but it did. I also couldn’t foresee that having the IV line put in my right arm would hurt, despite my “excellent” veins, nor that the contrast dye going into that arm would be even more painful—these things had never happened before. Leeanne flushed the line with saline again, and decided that the pain was due to holding my arm above my head, as instructed; she put my arm down flat on the table, which helped, and then chafed my cold hands while the dye went into my system.
            I think my body is done with it all, the way it was done near the end of chemo, when the nurses had trouble finding a good vein. I love these women for their care of me and professionally kind manner. I’m grateful for whomever figured out the new formula for barium that tastes like water instead of powdered chalk. I love going in and asking questions, learning new things; for example, 98.2 percent of the energy it takes for an X-ray is expended in heat; only 1.8 percent goes toward making the image, which is why the room is sweltering by the end of the day. But I am truly praying that this scan is clear and the last one I will need.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Seeking Comfort

Let your loving-kindness be my comfort, as you have promised to your servant.
Psalm 119:76

Sometimes, none of my tricks designed to make me content or comforted help. Yes, it’s true, I’m among the privileged—I woke up this morning, and could get out of bed and make my own breakfast. Not everyone can do that. I can still enjoy the taste of food, the morning’s chill breeze, and that’s a gift.
But as my friends know, there are times I need a “There, there, poor baby,” and this is one of them. With a CATscan and surgery coming up in the next few weeks, and now a cat who’s been foolish enough to get hurt and is unhappy about being asked to remain inside until his paw heals, I’m not coping very well. My acupuncturist told me that before my recent treatment, I was “depleted.” When she finished, I was “full,” but I don’t feel all that much different.
The truth is, I’ve never liked being around sick people, and now I am one. Not sick with oozing sores like the lepers Jesus touched, and not confined to bed, but clearly not among the well-with-no-cares, as I was for decades.
“No one understands like Jesus,” one of the songs from my past proclaims. Jesus must be my comfort, especially when I don’t tell people the full truth about what’s going on in my life. People are not nearly as intuitive as I’d like them to be. I look well enough, no gaping wound like my cat has, so how are they to know if I don’t tell them?
The truth is, I get tired of talking about cancer, the “gift” I never wanted that keeps on giving. I will never be completely well again—that “whole-souled wellness” as a college professor once translated shalom is not mine any more. I need to think about this. If he was right, there’s no reason my soul shouldn’t be whole, even if my body keeps making tumors.

            I think it’s the playwright Tina Howe, in the introduction to one of her works, who talks about the fierce love of old women. In any case, I got a dose of that fierce love from the women—some of them with daughters my age—I see on Wednesday mornings. I used to quilt with them, but now that I’ve taken on a part-time job, I show up in time for the healing eucharist service and chat briefly before I go to work. The quilts are better for it.
            I told them about the surgery, and they were full of motherly coddling, crying “No fair!”, hugging me tightly, and promising prayer. I’d forgotten that Jesus mediates his comfort through others.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Being Valiant

With God we will do valiant deeds, and he shall tread our enemies under foot.
Psalm 108:13, Book of Common Prayer

            When the psalmist wrote of valiant deeds, no doubt the allusion was to courageous deeds during battle—after an initial call to praise God, the psalm turns in verse 7 to beating the war drums. But there are many kinds of valor, most of them not considered worthy of medals. Even those of us who, like the Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion, display “conspicuous bravery” against our own wicked witches, will seldom be recognized for doing so.
            At one point during chemo, I remember telling a friend I was considering going under the bed and staying there. “Just take your journal with you,” she advised, knowing that I process my life on the page or the computer screen, equally white and blank. So here I am, trying to muster up the courage to get on with my life.
            It’s been much, much worse than facing several medical procedures over the next few weeks. Now that barium tastes like water instead of powdered chalk, a CATscan is almost nothing, if you don’t mind being radioactive for a while. (At least it doesn’t hurt.) Outpatient surgery is better than inpatient surgery. I have not one but two friends who’ve offered transportation, and a third with a spare room I can occupy during the 24-hour window after surgery. I have no reason to suspect my gynecologic oncologist will give me bad news at next month’s follow-up visit. But somehow the cumulative effect of all these events on the horizon have me feeling as if my head is going to explode.
            I suppose a large part of the problem is that I’m not clear about how I want others to handle all this. If outpatient surgery once a year to deal with the “nuisance cancer” that keeps cropping up is my new normal, then it should fall into the category of no big deal. I don’t need to broadcast it at church, get my name on the prayer list, or expect flowers to be delivered after the procedure. “Twenty minutes tops,” my doctor says it will take him, a far cry from the projected four-hour surgery that became six hours to remove the first cancer cells. Or even the cystoscopy that became surgery and an overnight stay in the hospital. On the other hand, it is surgery, with anesthesia, neither of which, as an education nurse told me before the first one, is supposed to happen to a body. If this one is typical, I’ll feel off for a week—not exactly ill or in pain, just not quite right and not terribly excited about food. This is hardly grounds for taking up residence among the dust bunnies under the bed, or a desire to keen, but I’m experiencing both.
            This ambivalence can create tension in my relationships. Yesterday when a friend—who hasn’t been told about these forthcoming medical events—asked me how I was, I said, “Overwhelmed,” and kept walking. He, of course, was supposed to follow me and ascertain the nature of my difficulty, but I’d erected the force field to repel others. He could probably sense he’d have his nose bitten off for his trouble, and let it drop. It took much of the day to shake it off, and apparently I’ve not yet done so.
I don’t like being this way. I’ve yet to figure out, five years after my first symptoms, how to do cancer. Just getting up in the morning and making it through the day, without doing emotional harm to myself or anyone else, is the only valiant deed I can manage.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


You’ve no doubt heard the joke about the (literal) lab report and cat scan, but this morning I saw a funny photo of a cat sitting on a CATscan machine, held in place by a guy in a white lab coat. I smiled, and then I thought, That’s a GE scanner, like the one at the center I go to. This familiarity with machinery I barely knew existed five years ago dismays me.
I may be a bit extra sensitive right now, because I need to call the doctor’s office and schedule my next CATscan; I have to wait until we’re within a month of the next check-up—the center doesn’t schedule out as far as the doctor does. And invariably I have to remind the nurses to call the imaging center, and generally have to change the appointment they make, because someone doesn’t listen to what I’m saying about where or what time. This is known as being your own advocate or just one more thing to deal with.
This is an important scan, and there’s not one thing I can do to change the outcome, beyond eating my Swiss chard and spinach, taking my supplements—which may not have any effect at all. My gynecologic oncologist has said if this one is clear, it will be the last one; from here on out, we will rely only on blood work and exams. I always want a clear report, of course, but it would be lovely not to have any more radiation coursing through me. Much as I adore the warm blankets that are wrapped around me during my two hours of drinking barium—and grateful as I am that barium no longer tastes like chalk—I’ll give it up gladly.
This time I have a new question in terms of timing: is it better to have a scan before or after outpatient surgery? Only twelve days separate my surgery to remove one cancer’s tumors and the appointment for the other cancer, before which I need the CATscan and blood work. Poor planning, but between my freelance project with a tight deadline and his surgery schedule, it was the best I could do. I’ll have to let you know.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Those Who Would Condemn

I will give great thanks to the LORD with my mouth; in the midst of the multitude will I praise him; because he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save his life from those who would condemn him.
Ps. 109: 29, 30 Book of Common Prayer

“What did I do wrong?”
Those were the first words a friend of mine spoke after being told she had ovarian cancer. A conscientious woman, she’d faithfully had mammograms and watched her weight. She’d even had two children, unconsciously lowering her risk of ovarian cancer, according to some researchers. Because she didn’t follow up on a strange bloating she experienced, I heard her say, “I blame myself” for not catching the disease at an earlier, more treatable stage.
Sadly, there are people who will condemn us, behind our backs if not to our faces, for our cancers.
“If he hadn’t smoked like a chimney all those years . . . . ”
“She’s got such a temper and is a Type A, and we all know . . . . ”
“He knew something was wrong and he waited too long . . . . ”
“Well, what can you expect? She missed her mammogram and . . . . ”
The truth is, while we do know some common carcinogens, nobody really understands why one chronic smoker gets lung cancer and so does a person who never smoked, whose parents and spouse never smoked. Nor do we understand what causes the body to stop fighting all the mutant cells we all carry and to allow cancer to grow. Condemning a person for having cancer is adding insult to injury.
And yet, we do it to ourselves. Sometimes the needy person and the one who would condemn are the same person. Sometimes, God needs to save us from ourselves.
I struggle with this during every recurrence. I should have lost weight. I shouldn’t cheat on my celiac regimen. If only I had . . . .
Just for today, I need to be aware of God at my right hand, not condemning me, worthy of praise.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in you.
Psalm 56:3

I am afraid, as my dreams show. Not quite full-blown nightmares, they are projections of what I fear will happen at my six-month bladder cancer check-up. In last night’s dream, a nurse did a pre-exam and found cancer, plus my organs were all twisted and in the wrong positions. I think these dreams make it possible for me to get through my days without keening and wailing in fear and dread, but they don’t make for a restful night.
            One of three things will happen. It’s possible there’s no recurrence—that happened the last time, but I don’t trust it, because it was the first time in three years. I feel fine, have no symptoms, but then I never did. It’s possible that in six months, tumors have sprouted and grown to gargantuan proportions, making surgery the only option. I know what that means: outpatient surgery, followed by a bag for a week to let the bladder heal. As one might expect, I feel pretty awful with the bag, and worry about it leaking and slipping down my leg, because I don’t manage those elastic straps very well. Or there could be small tumors, which my doctor would “fulgurate” in the office. It sounds like fumigate, but it’s really a synonym for cauterize. As in, burn. He’s assured me that most patients tolerate the pain pretty well. I have a high tolerance for pain, but still.
            I am going alone, because it’s easier. If I feel okay after the exam, I’ve got shopping to do in a part of town I rarely visit, where there are health food stores with items I need. And if I feel bad, I don’t have to make anyone else feel bad. I don’t have to try to put on a good face, or minimize the shock of bad news. I don’t have to chatter on the drive there. I lose human sympathy and a friendly face, someone to celebrate with after hearing good news. But I’ve been going to doctors for almost five years now, have had seven or eight surgeries, and I feel I should save my friends’ graciousness for when I really need them. This suggests I’m afraid their goodness is exhaustible, when they’ve shown me over and over that it is not. So perhaps it’s just my hubris. I’ll let you know.

I was wrong. There’s a fourth option: number of small tumors—the usual non-invasive, Stage 1 kind—too many to fulgurate in the office. We’re scheduling the surgery.
I’m not happy, even though I dreaded the pain of being awake during an office procedure. Surgery is costly; anesthesia is a nuisance. I tell myself that having outpatient surgery once a year is much preferable to multiple recurrences of the ovarian cancer. That’s true, but I still wish I didn’t have to do this.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Just Keep Walking

Set aside, for the moment, the scientific reasons why the Israelites couldn’t have crossed a dry Red Sea, split open when Moses hit it with his staff, or why Elijah and then Elisha split the Jordan River with a rolled-up cloak, or why Jesus couldn’t have literally walked on water. Look even beyond the symbolic significance of anyone who demonstrated power over that most precious and uncontrollable substance, water. Let’s ask the deeper questions, rather than getting bogged down in the mud of our own rational minds.
            Mark’s version of Jesus walking on water says the disciples, having been sent on in the boat, struggled against an adverse wind. Things got no better when they saw a ghost walking on water, which terrified them. Jesus spoke words of comfort: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” He got in the boat and the wind calmed. (Mark 6:45-52)
            But Jesus intended to pass them by. As they used to say in the sci-fi stories, “This does not compute.” Jesus was the one who’d sent them out in the boat near nightfall. He saw and felt the wind they had been fighting for hours. And yet the narrative suggests if they hadn’t noticed him, he would have kept on walking to beat them to shore. Where’s the loving and compassionate Jesus we’re familiar with? What could possibly be more important to him than their well-being and safety?
            I don’t have an answer, which is why I’m writing. Maybe Jesus was messing with them, or enjoying the feel of walking on water, the way that penguins appear to have fun on snowbank slides. Maybe he was praying, or was weary and giving himself some time off. After all, he’d originally invited the disciples for a sort of mini-retreat away from the crowds; the crowds followed, however, and after they listened to Jesus’ teaching, they needed to be fed. Jesus multiplied bread and fish, and the disciples distributed it to thousands. Not much of a vacation.
            I also find it interesting that the wind doesn’t die down until after Jesus clambers into the boat with them. It’s tempting to make it a nice, tidy story, with the moral being the need for Jesus’ presence in our storm-tossed boats. That’s true, of course, but I want to go deeper.
Why was Jesus going to pass them by? Is it possible that the things that concerned them—and the things that concerns me, like a blood draw or a check-up—is not on his agenda? The adverse wind, the toiling all night to get nowhere are apparently insignificant to Jesus. But their fear of him does matter.
I have a need for tidy endings, so indulge me here. Maybe the lesson is that we need not fear Jesus, no matter how inexplicable his actions—and if we follow him long enough, those actions will at some point make no sense. Jesus’ priorities are not ours, but his apparent indifference to our plight is only a shadow.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Up at Midnight

At midnight I will rise to give you thanks, because of your righteous judgments.
Psalm 119: 61 Book of Common Prayer

            When the psalms were written, midnight really was the middle of the night. In an agrarian society, without electricity to keep the world going, people went to bed “with the chickens,” as the saying goes. And chickens go to bed when it gets dark and get up when the sun comes back out. To get up voluntarily in the middle of a good night’s sleep to praise God is a noble thing.
            Being in treatment for cancer can result in sleeplessness. I often went into a manic phase the day of chemo, chattering away until one in the morning to any hapless guest who was visiting. I’ve read of women who had mega-cleaning sessions, but I’m not wired to clean, even on chemo drugs. It sometimes took a day or two to come down from the steroids and chemicals. I didn’t need to rise at midnight to give God thanks, because I hadn’t been to bed.
            Ah, but giving thanks? That was really the hard part. Much as I came to love my chemo nurse and the other women in the room receiving chemo, I would rather not have been there at all. Comfortable as the recliner was, I’d have preferred to be at home in my own beat-up, cat-clawed recliner. I’ve never been able to consider chemo “liquid love,” as a friend does. It remained poison, the entire time, even after I figured out that calling it poison wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.
            During treatment, I had to be intentional about giving thanks, trying to create a habit of gratitude. Anything becomes a habit, I think, after six weeks. Most of us don’t consciously think about needing to brush our teeth—it’s automatic. By persistently looking for things for which to give thanks, we can train ourselves in gratitude.
            Now I go to bed most nights before midnight, though I’ve not slept through a night in years. I wake to go to the bathroom; I wake because I’m thinking about a writing assignment; I wake because I’ve had a nightmare so dreadful I had to make it stop. Sometimes I wake because I’ve scared myself about the next check-up, or the cost of health insurance. I try to think of this verse, to remember to be thankful for a functioning bladder and too-busy mind. We can train ourselves to do this, and it can make wakefulness—drug-fueled or otherwise—less unpleasant, a time of silence and darkness, perfect for communing with God.