One of the unexpected comforts of having cancer is the interesting company you get to keep. Both Catholic priest Henri Nouwen and Lutheran pastor Walter Wangerin Jr. have written small but compelling books that describe their experiences with cancer. Nouwen died of pancreatic cancer in 1996 and Wangerin is still teaching and writing several years after his diagnosis of advanced lung cancer. For both men, cancer was a profound initiator of spiritual clarity, devout meditation and a faithful seeking after God. They have been good companions as I proceed on my journey along the canyon’s edge.
While reading Wangerin the other day, I came upon a line that practically jumped off the page. In a letter in which he was complaining about the media’s sentimentalized characterization of those who “battle” cancer, he wrote: “I have never construed my cancer as my enemy.” Yes, that’s me exactly, I thought. Furthermore, Wangerin refuses to use the imagery of warfare when speaking of his cancer. He and I share a distaste with the language that so often appears in obituaries that so-and-so has died after “a long battle with cancer.” Endless variations of that cliché can be found in almost any newspaper on a daily basis. I don’t judge others for whom “fighting” may be a helpful attitude, but I find the metaphor presumptuous. I see nothing heroic about becoming a professional patient, which is what many of us ultimately become. And what would achieving “victory” over cancer look like anyway? Defeat and death are so much more decisive—and newsworthy. In my journalism experience, I can think of no antonym for obituary.
For me, cancer isn’t really a matter of defeat or victory. The use of martial language does a disservice to those of us with the disease who place their experience in a different context. Like Wangerin, I don’t regard my cancer as an enemy, as something outside of myself. That’s a cultural narrative I refuse to accept. Nouwen (ever the mystic) has referred to his ordeal with cancer as a “dance.” It’s a dance with mortality itself. “Facing death,” he writes, “allows us to experience life in a way our denial never can permit. Inviting God into our grief will mean we never walk alone.” In Nouwen’s life, the presence of the divine was the means by which he turned physical suffering into dancing. His imagery enchants me.
I’ve taken to thinking of my time with cancer as an adventure. It’s an opportunity to experience things I would never have otherwise. At its worst, it’s been a misadventure at times: uncomfortable, frightening but never dull. I don’t care for the dualism of the warfare metaphor that separates me from my cancer (the “not me”). In melanoma circles, many of the anguished refer to their cancer as “the beast.” Whether they do so consciously or not, they make cancer the enemy in order to muster the courage needed to submit to the truly dreadful treatments that oncology has to offer. And, of course, to assuage their fear of death. If this is not a battle against a relentless, evil and potentially lethal aggressor, then why suffer the side-effects that accompany the surgery, chemo, immunotherapy, radiation, etc., etc.?
The medical establishment feeds this impulse, especially for diseases like metastatic melanoma, ALS and certain others for which there is no cure, but for which there are plenty of clinical trials peddling hope. When you’re up against a “killer,” you need powerful “weapons” with which to retaliate. It’s often a brutal, and brutalizing business. It doesn’t have to be. Some of us have opted out of the belief that cancer is an unmitigated disaster.
Because I believe in the integration of self, composed of mind, body and soul, I accommodate the cancer that exists in my body within that self-understanding. I have cancer for a purpose. It’s not a random accident over which I should curse my bad luck.
Christian author John Piper wrote an article several years ago, when he was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, that he titled “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.” He believes that it won’t do to say that God uses our cancer but does not design it. “What God permits, he permits for a reason. And that reason is his design,” Piper wrote. So if God has permitted me to have melanoma, as I believe he has, then it’s up to me to make something of it. The only part of my cancer over which I have control is my response, and even that gets shaky at times.
I believe that I will have wasted my cancer, to use Piper’s language, if I think that beating cancer means merely staying alive. The decisions I’ve had to make about how my cancer is treated are sometimes intriguing, but they do not consume me. While I follow the medical literature, I don’t obsess over it. I try to avoid playing the percentages of survival, and focus instead on living with the certainties of Easter. God’s purposes for my life are many, but as things stand today, what is written in 2 Corinthians is especially relevant: “We felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.” I suspect that one of God’s aims in permitting my cancer is to knock props out from under my heart so that I rely utterly on Him. I’m not there yet, but I'm an earnest disciple.
My cancer is not my enemy because it is part of who I am. That’s true biologically, but I believe it’s also true spiritually. Part of my adventure is making sense of it, learning from it, and taking advantage of the opportunities it affords me. Should it advance again quickly, as it did earlier this year, then I’ll discover that much sooner how sincere I am in my convictions. Not making my cancer my enemy assures that my focus remains on all of whom I am. I will not waste the opportunity I’ve been given to fight a make-believe battle that, in the long run, none of us can win anyway.