Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Part of the deal

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.

I’ve also written previously about my friend Sue, who I’ve known since third grade and who was treated for brain cancer 16 years ago. (Anaplastic astrocytoma; Who invents these names?) Sue lives alone in Portland in a swanky apartment a block off Broadway, where a caregiver comes in daily to prepare meals, clean up and make sure she’s taking her meds. Sue has short-term memory problems and, for reasons unrelated to cancer, uses a wheelchair to get around. She’s in long-term remission. It was radiation therapy that left her disabled and unable to work.

I’ve known other people pushed to the brink by cancer, or who have died from it. I’m not a cancer virgin. Few of us are who have reached middle age.

Nevertheless, what I’ve observed in the suffering of others afflicted with this disease appalls me. It’s never routine. It offends me as it offends nearly everyone. Some people I know who are rarely at a loss for words are dumbfounded by it. I grieve over what Sue has surrendered in the bargain she struck to survive. To her credit, she epitomizes what it means to be a grateful survivor. I saw how Eric went through months of undiagnosed bleeding and misery before his cancer was finally diagnosed—to his great relief. It hurt to see him hurt.

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.


Jim said...

People can't cope with cancer because they can't deal with their own mortality. The clock ticks for all of us toward the separation of soul from earthly clay. Every biography ends with a tragedy. Its depth depends on how much time we are given by circumstances, and how much joy we spread while we have that time. I loved being introduced to more hearty survivors. Jim.

Marsha said...

I don't often read all of the comments to your posts, so it was interesting to see that the blog is reaching others outside family, friends, and church family. Maybe you'll go "viral". Wouldn't that just be like God to use your suffering to expose people to a Christ-follower who's vulnerable yet faithful, intelligent and not ashamed of His Master.