When it comes to cancer surgeries, my friend Eric knows how to make a statement. He had nine metastases removed from his liver on Friday, and says he has a 12-inch scar from his navel to his right flank to prove it. He’ll be in the hospital for days as he slowly regains strength, and will be out of circulation for weeks. He’s been told that his prognosis—now that he’s had two major surgeries in three months—is actually pretty good. Once removed, carcinoid cancer doesn’t tend to recur.
It’s terrible that people I know are randomly pulled into this world of uncertainty and diminishment. It’s revolting because everyone knows that it could happen to them. To those whom it strikes, cancer first weakens and then sometimes breaks. We’re embodied reminders of the ragged edge of life. And that reminder of mortality is almost always unwelcome. The lengths to which some will deny it or avoid it would be comical, if they weren’t so heartbreaking. Anyone who has ever had cancer knows what I mean.
So, yes, I’ve felt marginalized by others who can’t cope with the idea of cancer, and I must acknowledge that I have marginalized others myself. Rare is the person who has the right words to say. And if I were to hear the “right words,” could I even accept them? There’s some pretty bizarre psychology at work here.
This pain cannot be wished away, despite our mightiest efforts. It’s real and it’s debilitating. It can be denied, of course, but only to a point. I know from experience that suffering can be redemptive. It brings some people closer to God. There’s much more to it than that, but suffice to say for now that it can be purposeful. Sue said it well the other day: There are no atheists in the cancer ward. God is a present comfort to her, as he is to me. It’s to him we turn when no one else has answers, and there is no person who can comfort us. There are experiences that we must push through alone. They can be as hard to watch as they are to experience.
In the movie, “Shadowlands,” the American poet Joy Davidman is dying of cancer when she tells C.S. Lewis, the great British writer and Christian apologist, that pain cannot be separated from the happiness they experience together. “That’s part of the deal,” Davidman says simply. Loss brings pain. It’s a good thing to learn and to accept as the cost for being human.