foreword   |   by Krista Tippett

We tend to use words like “miracle” and “mystery” in the context of serendipity. In this frank and eloquent account of life transformed by cancer, Deanna Thompson explores these articles of faith as they are also wont to appear, on the hard edges of hope and the dark side of joy.

I have known Deanna Thompson since we were both studying at Yale Divinity School in the early 1990s. She was a few years younger and headed for a career in academia. I was struck by the purity of her intelligence and joy. Then, we met again in Minnesota, where we both landed. I remember musing to myself at the good fortune of her students at Hamline University, where she became a professor. “Getting paid to talk about God is a pretty sweet deal,” she writes, as this book opens. Her delight in the work of theology and the art of teaching was always evident and infectious.

The new conversation with God that she began after her diagnosis of Stage IV cancer is a conversation that countless people are having in our time. Medicine is sometimes in the business of documentable miracles, and maybe it will cure cancer one day. But for now, cancer in all its variety is a rampant reminder to modernity that we are mortal. Still, when it strikes a person as young and beautiful as Deanna Thompson, as full of promise, as beloved and necessary to her husband, young daughters, friends, and students, none of us can help but ask why.

This book is, in the first instance, one woman’s memoir of the odyssey that a diagnosis of cancer becomes—a journey through a terrifying terrain of tests, hospital beds, medications, and treatments—of radical changes inside her body and in the ecosystem of her life.

Deanna Thompson’s particular story is also, to be sure, a tale of abundance—of a “tidal wave” of love and care, of intimate and active networks of family and friends. But she is unflinchingly self-reflective about the layers of response this experience creates. There is a sense of guilt alongside gratitude, and more guilt in misery that is not at all allayed by expressions of fierce and self-sacrificing love.

The theology that happens here is similarly unsentimental. There is this agonizing conundrum: Why do drugs and prayer seem to work for her and not for her friend’s beloved husband? There is this deep and sustained reality: “I ache, and God is silent. What do I do now?”

Again and again, Deanna states plainly, “there are no adequate answers for these questions.” But her questions are themselves gifts of naming realities and mysteries on the hard edges of hope and the dark side of joy.

A hope and expectation of “cure” is in the vocabulary of modern science, and also in the vocabulary of the Bible. But it is something Deanna Thompson feels reluctant to pray for. What we experience with her instead is real, raw, ongoing work of healing that touches the whole of her life—her relationships, her body, and the very meaning of hope. She comes to acknowledge her “fractured-yet-graced life.” She even introduces a piece of theology for our time: the Virtual Body of Christ.

No one knows how to have cancer, Deanna Thompson hears at one point and then learns the hard way. In the course of her treatment for Stage IV cancer, she is given advice about how to live while preparing to die. This book is a companion not merely for the illness of cancer but for that challenge, which ultimately defines all of our existence. All of our lives are fractured yet graced. This book is a gift as we make that discovery.

– Krista Tippett
Creator of On Being, Minnesota Public Radio