Fight those who fight me, O LORD; attack those who are attacking me. Take up shield and armor and rise up to help me.
Psalm 35:1, 2 Book of Common Prayer
I don’t like the imagery of battling cancer. I came of age during the Vietnam War, and I’ve seen enough of battle, albeit from the small screen in our living room. I don’t like competitive games with winners and losers either, perhaps because I’m not good at them and don’t like to lose. I would especially hate to lose this war game. It would be worse than losing to my brother at Stratego. Fortunately, my oncologist doesn’t like war metaphors either. He’s more likely to encourage me with reminders that I’m the one riding the bike, driving the car; he and the nurses are there to change the oil or pump up the tires.
Try as I might, however, some days it does feel like war. Cancer cells have gone crazy and attacked me. I have a kind of autoimmune disease, just as surely as friends who have died of AIDS had. No one is certain what tripped the wires—my eating habits, my weight, my leaning toward sedentary lifestyle, my childlessness, some genetic inheritance? All I know is that my body was trying to destroy itself. I did everything I could to stay alive, even as the chemo killed off healthy and unhealthy cells alike.
On days when I feel utterly helpless against a microscopic foe, a text such as this one from the psalms is a great comfort. God is waging this battle with me, leading the attack. The most sophisticated weapons of battle in the days of the psalmist were part of God’s arsenal: shield and armor. I think of those as defensive equipment; anyone going through chemo knows that defense is needed. Chemo drugs will burn any skin they contact; pray for a skilled nurse. We need defense to strengthen our healthy cells; we eat probiotics to help rebuilt gut flora and nourishing food rather than the empty calories that may have been standard fare.
After treatment, a cease fire, as the body regains the strength and hair lost to chemotherapy. For me, a second battle the following year with a second cancer, though mercifully I’d already had treatment with the drug of choice for that cancer, too. Annual or semi-annual reconnaisance, making sure no insurgency can grow.
Ultimately, I will lose the battle to stay alive in this body forever. But today, heading into Lent, I remember the words of the burial service from John’s Gospel: I am resurrection, and I am life.