Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.
Psalm 25: 16, 17 New Revised Standard Version
As if cancer and its treatment aren’t bad enough, many of us also have to contend with what the psalmist terms troubles of the heart. Sometimes this takes a physical form—one day, one of the women in the infusion room complained of chest pains. Even though I hoped never to need their services, I was impressed to see how quickly the emergency team arrived and how competent they were.
Most of the time, though, the heart trouble isn’t literal. We fret over so many things—the dread of leaving our families and friends, of not completing our contribution to the world, of painful dying. And there’s that other existential sadness, the knowledge that after a time of mourning, the people in our world will go on without us. Life doesn’t stop when someone we love dies. We know this from experience, but find it hard to accept when considering our own dying.
We may scare ourselves with dark imaginings that can cause our hearts to beat faster. Although it’s natural to be afraid when we face surgery or treatment, we need not exaggerate the fear. I can be a drama queen myself, but it wears on others.
The psalmist asked God to relieve the distress, and that’s a fine prayer. But we can also take steps to do so. For one thing, we can stop thinking fearfully. Replace fear with cheer. I don’t mean to sound pollyannaish, but there’s something to all this positive thinking.
At the beginning of our collaboration, my gynecologic oncologist told me that attitude was the best predictor of success in cancer treatment. I have seen this fact played out in women who have lived—and lived well and fully—in the midst of treatment and recurrence. Choosing joy, as one friend puts it, is key. Taking time to notice and delight in each day’s gifts is also crucial. God’s mercies are new every day, the book of Lamentations tells us.
Now, nearly four years after the end of my chemo regimen, I know that there are no guarantees. I’ve seen women get very sick and leave this life unexpectedly and quickly. My hope is to find some joy each day, so that I am fully present to whatever blessings arrive, rejoicing in whatever God sends to relieve my heart troubles.