Saturday, September 03, 2016

Reading With Cancer

I hardly ever used to read articles or blog posts dealing with cancer. It wasn't that I set out to actively avoid the topic, though I admit to a vague feeling of uneasiness sometimes when reading about it. Although I felt compassion for those who suffered from cancer, having had some friends and family members go through it over the years, I just didn't feel a deep, personal connection with the word or the subject. Of course, that completely changed when I got diagnosed in February.

I think most big life events change us as readers. I don't just mean how we read, though that's a big part of it, but what we read. We tend to gravitate toward reflections that connect in some way with who we are at the core. I read differently because I know Jesus, because I'm married, because I'm a mom, because I've lost a parent.

(Note: I put the first one first there, because knowing Jesus affects everything I do and see and think about most deeply. I am thinking here of C.S. Lewis' quote: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.")

But my realization about my different reading choices and preferences dawns slowly sometimes. In the case of cancer, it's dawned extra slowly, because I had months where I was either too exhausted, or just too mentally preoccupied, to read much of anything, much less anything that had to do with the illness that had invaded.

It's really just been within the last few weeks that I find my glance straying to posts or articles with the word "cancer" in them. I sometimes feel like there's a laser beam connecting me to the word, so that I'm inexorably drawn to whatever has been written about it, whether that's news about funding for or breakthroughs in cancer research, a prayer request for someone who is suffering from cancer, or a reflection by someone who has lost or is losing someone to cancer. I go to whatever is there, and I begin to read, no longer from the vantage point of compassionate outsider, but from the view of someone who has lived through enough that the words in the article reverberate with special meaning and power.

Or perhaps I actually straddle those perspectives. 

In the case of the last type of writing I mentioned, "a reflection by someone who has lost or is losing someone to cancer," I read with such a different orientation now that it feels like the world's axis has a new tilt. When I used to read such reflections, I always primarily connected with the writer/narrator of the story, the person actively living through the loss or potential loss. While that connection still lurks in the background, my bigger connection now is sometimes with the subject of the story, the person who is either still struggling with cancer or who has died. And again, that changes everything.

I thought of all this yesterday when I came across the following post from Ruminate magazine, entitled "The Caring Bridge: Cancer and the Meaning of Battles."

In it, poet and essayist Angela Doll Carlson meditates on losing her friend Debbi to cancer. She reflects on how daily life is filled with interruptions, and on how these interruptions distract us -- distract us from thinking about the news of a friend's struggle (especially in those long periods where there is no news, either good or bad), distract us from being able to find the words we need to describe the heaviness we feel when we think of our loss. I resonated with her words, as a writer, a mom, who has been there in the daily grind, lived through the countless interruptions, tried to think my way through to making sense of love and life and loss.

But I resonated  just as much if not more with the words of her friend Debbi, now passed on. She quoted Debbi from their last visit together.

“The battle is the Lord’s.” Debbi told me this when I finally saw her in person. I had no idea as we sat and talked that day that it would only be a week or so before she died. She scoffed, something I was not used to seeing from her, “I hate that people say it’s a battle. I’m not fighting a battle with cancer. I’m dying.” I nodded my head, and she looked at me pointedly, “because if it’s a battle, what does that mean when I die? Is dying really losing?” I did not know what to say in that moment.

Oh, Debbi, I think, with the tears threatening to well up, I get this. Although I am in a different place in my healing journey right now (and healing journey is what I still call it, instead of cancer journey, and I believe that the writer's friend Debbi was on a healing journey too) I too wrestle with the right words to talk about what is going on with me. As you can probably tell by the parenthetical comment I just felt a need to insert.

Our culture loves to talk about cancer as a battle, and I know dear friends and fellow patients who have embraced the word wholeheartedly. It seems to work for them, and I'm glad it does, but I have never felt much like a warrior when it comes to this disease, and I think that's okay too.

I realized from the very beginning that I had few weapons that could actually combat this disease, and that everything I could think of that felt like a powerful sword would be wielded best by others: the doctors who have an arsenal of compassion, competency, training, and wisdom; the cutting edge medicines that might or might not work and that would likely cause many side effects but that were my only line of physical defense; the pastors and deacons who would come to my home and to my hospital bedside to lay hands on me and to anoint me with healing oil; the family members and friends who would lift me up in prayer every day, especially on those days when I was far too tired to lift up myself, asking God to heal me, help me, and sustain me.

I learned early on that it was my job to "stay on the mat," while others brought me to Jesus, and while that takes patience, courage, and strength, it doesn't feel like warrior kinds of strength. I think this is what Debbi meant when she said "the battle is the Lord's." Of course it is. Ultimately it is always his, not ours, because he is the one with the true strength and power to win it. That is true in my ongoing fight against sin. Why should it be any different in my fight against disease?

But just as the fight against sin requires my ongoing willingness to fight and my participation with what God is doing, so too my fight against cancer.  As I've stayed on the mat, as I've walked the road one shaky step at a time, and as I've faced hard and toxic treatments, I have begun to question whether or not my ultimate problem is with the word "battle" or whether it's with our culture's notion of what constitutes true strength.

Maybe I am -- and maybe Debbi was (may she rest in peace) -- a warrior of a sort that we don't think about too often, the kind of strong and faithful person of love, peace, and prayer that some of the saints we love most have modeled being most truly, and that most of us just keep aspiring to be.

Because it does take courage to keep "fighting" (there's one of those hard words again) when you really have no clue how to fight, when you can't see what you're fighting, when you don't know how the fight will end. But your longing to continue living, loving, and serving others compels you forward, even on days when you feel like giving up. And you trust that however the battle may end, when you are holding onto Jesus, it ultimately ends in healing (hence my term "healing journey") and it ultimately means winning, not losing.

To quote from Carlson's article again:

"If there is indeed a battle that is ours, it is a race to find meaning and purpose. The battle is an attempt to leave a legacy of love and care, a caring bridge and it spans the life we led, the life we leave and the people who will need to continue the long walk ahead. The battle rages as the clock ticks, the days fly by too fast, people leave us too soon, leaving empty spaces where their laughter ought to be."

I find that I do indeed resonate with these words too, that I'm still thinking through what it means (and how) "to leave a legacy of love and care" for those who walk the path around us and behind us. I don't know right now how long I'll have to figure that out and to try to do it faithfully and well. It may be a long time or a short time. But isn't that true for all of us? My cancer diagnosis changes some things, but it doesn't change everything. I'm part of the human race where we're all living on the gift of an unknown amount of time, and where we want to squeeze every last drop of holiness and laughter and love out of that time, be it short or long.

So not everything about my reading has changed. The reading material I gravitate toward has widened to include cancer and all the issues, ideas, and themes that orbit around it. And when I choose to read about cancer now, I read with double lenses. There is the me that continues to "battle" cancer, and the me that continues to think through the daily minutiae that have always mattered to me, like language and loss, and how to live faithfully in the midst of them.


No comments: