I’ll be attending a memorial service tomorrow for another friend who died from complications related to cancer—non-Hodgkins lymphoma, in this case. Lee had a bone marrow transplant several months ago that gave him hope, but his white blood cell count never rebounded and he died Saturday from pneumonia.
I didn’t know Lee well, but we attended the same church and as often happens, we connected emotionally on account of both being cancer survivors. Lee’s first diagnosis and treatment was many years ago, after which he was mostly healthy. The last time we had coffee together a year ago was just before his lymphoma recurred. He was the healthy one at that point, as I was deeply into my interferon haze.
Lee has a wonderful wife and a tight-knit family, so he was well loved and cared for. He is now at peace with God.
In one of those odd convergences we all occasionally experience, two other people I knew died from cancer in the last two weeks. Len was a neighbor, a war vet with two Purple Hearts, and a man of relentless optimism. Pam was the sister of a friend and neighbor, who battled breast cancer ferociously for 22 months. She died too young.
Cancer seems to touch people randomly, and often cruelly. I have another friend who had a brother and sister die from cancer within five days of each other last month. Both were in their 50s. I met Nancy once when she came out from Iowa for a visit, and she was as congenial and rock-solid as my friend. I still can’t quite wrap my mind around what it would be like to bury two sibs in a week.
I keep a prayer list for people I know who have or have had cancer. Several names are now crossed out. Perhaps if I’d had a heart attack instead of cancer my prayers would be focused on people with heart disease. Cancer does not confer special status on anyone. It does not make you a better person. But when you’ve been a part of that world, you see and understand things about the disease that others don’t. By praying for others I effectively also pray for myself, so my behavior is not exactly altruistic. My prayer list also has the effect of making me want to come alongside others with cancer. I believe this is part of my purpose for being in the world.
I spent Saturday with an old high school friend who was treated for brain cancer about 15 years ago, and who is severely disabled as a result of her radiation treatment. Sue (at right) is one in a million just to be alive, and she knows it. But she’s isolated and lonely, and, frankly, pretty out of it at times. I’ve had phone calls from her minutes after we’ve spoken when she asks about things we just talked about. Her short-term memory is shot.
We can never put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but when we try, we can sometimes capture a glimpse of something redemptive. For me, cancer has been a door into a world full of unknowns. There is a lot of pain and sadness there, but also light and joy. By most people’s measure, my friend Sue’s life is a tragedy. But she doesn’t see it that way. Nor do I. She manages the best she can, and on good days finds plenty of things for which to be grateful. It takes some effort for the rest of us to be so modest in our expectations, and so appreciative of what we have.
My “cancer friends” are a blessing to me, even if the cancer itself is a curse. They are one way that God speaks to me about the things that matter most.