Welcome. This blog offers reflections on the gifts that grace our lives, even in the midst of stage IV cancer diagnoses or other lousy circumstances that come our way. Thank you for visiting.
I’ve never been a fan of February. In February in Minnesota, winter shows no signs of letting up. The few years I lived in Nashville I was shocked when spring started to stir in February. In Minnesota in February, spring is still years away.
On top of the arctic weather, February ushers in the Christian season of Lent, which as a theologian I strongly approve of. Theoretically. It’s important to pare down, do without, take stock of our sin, and reflect on the suffering of Jesus. But practically speaking, it’s the downer season of the church year. o when Lent comes in the middle of a Minnesota February, I dream of practicing another faith in another state.
The first February after I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, Ash Wednesday arrived and I couldn’t muster up the courage to go to church. The thought of one of our pastors making the sign of the cross on my forehead and saying, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” was more than I could handle. Two of my vertebrae had already turned to ashes and I feared the rest of me wasn’t far behind. I needed no additional reminder that death was near.
That February—a good two months after getting the diagnosis—was also the time when the seriousness of my condition began to sink in. It was in February I realized that eighty percent of people who have this type of cancer are dead in five years. It was in February when I entered the classroom again and learned I was too weak to stand up and teach at the same time. It was in February that the cancer-winter-Lent triple threat became almost more than I could bear.
In my last blog post on “Rejoicing While Others Mourn,” I reflected on the rejoicing we did as a family at the end of 2012, knowing that at the same time, there was much mourning by families in so many other places in the world. Shortly after I wrote those words, a time to mourn was thrust into our midst with the sudden death of our 20-year-old neighbor as she finished up her semester of studying abroad in South America.
As I spent much of the week at the Kaplan’s, helping plan a service that we hoped would be a fitting tribute to Tamar’s too-short life, the impossibility of such a task was an ever-present reality. How could a 90-minute service possibly capture the essence of Tamar? Of course, the question itself was an excruciating one—one that should not have to be asked by parents and siblings of a bright-eyed young woman with her whole life ahead of her. Yet there we were, compiling pictures, stories, readings, and music, all in an attempt to capture the rich life she lived.
This holiday season our nation experienced a jarring juxtaposition I’ve become
more attuned to since living with cancer: the occasion when heartbreak collides
with celebration. The mid-December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School
injected shock and grief into a time when tidings of great joy are supposed to rule
the day. How does one rejoice in the midst of others’ anguish?
I admit that more than once during our family celebrations of the past few weeks,
my thoughts gravitated to the stark contrast between my family’s days of laughter
and joy and the families in Newtown crying their way through the holidays, knowing
that their precious little ones would never see another holiday, another new year,
another day of school. There were moments where it felt almost dishonorable to be
rejoicing, knowing so many others—both in Newtown and beyond—were buried in
As I approach the fourth anniversary of the day I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, I’m caught between conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I’m extremely grateful to still be around. Reaching cancerversary #4 is a milestone. Definitely cause for celebration. But with the cancer reactivated and recent moves to new medication and more time in the chemo room, the celebratory urge has become more muted.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve struggled with how to have cancer and how to talk about it. Heading toward the cancerversary, I also struggle with how to mark the anniversary of cancer’s entrance into my life. On the first cancerversary, a dear friend who lost his wife to the cancer I have brought over champagne. We toasted the fact that I was living with cancer, that the medication had put me into remission, that our lives were beginning to resemble our lives before cancer.
People often ask me how life has changed since being diagnosed with stage IV cancer. On bad days, the question brings tears to my eyes. On good days, though, I acknowledge that cancer changes the outlook on many aspects of life.
Take birthdays, for instance.
This week, I’ll officially enter my upper-40s. Since the cancer diagnosis, I’ve become more attuned to the many protests we lodge against the aging process. The popularity of botox injections and coloring hair to hide the gray, to name just two visible protests, suggest we’re not too keen on showing the world we’re actually getting older. We want to look young, feel young, stay young. And then birthdays come around once a year and insist that we acknowledge we’re getting older.
It’s rather remarkable that for everything else it is, Thanksgiving is fundamentally a day set aside for gratitude. Even though attention is often turned toward the delectable dishes we get to enjoy, it’s nevertheless a day to consider the gifts of grace we enjoy individually and as members of the larger community.
But sometimes gratitude can be hard to come by. Those of us who live face-to-face with an aggressive diagnosis or with other occasions for grief can find it difficult to be full of gratitude, even on an officially sanctioned day to do just that. Since my own diagnosis almost four years ago, I know how often fear, uncertainty, and grief make insistent pleas for my allegiance, even when I’m “supposed” to be cultivating gratitude.
In the face of fear and uncertainty’s nagging presence, I attempt—with varying degrees of success—to keep them at bay. While they tempt me with lists of anxious questions (Will still be around next Christmas? For the girls’ high school graduations? Will I make it to 50?), I try and turn my attention elsewhere. One of the best “elsewhere’s” I’ve found is through the practice of daily morning prayer. It is the case that I often wake to thoughts of fear; in response, I move through a litany of prayers of gratitude for this day.
Before we move into the season of holiday celebrations, I’d like to say a few words in praise of lament. Lament—the expression of sadness, grief, mourning—is an underrated practice in contemporary life. In their book about lament called Rachel’s Cry, religion scholars Daniel Migliore and Kathleen Billman suggest that we’re reluctant as a society to publically grieve our failures, limitations, and losses. The title of their book comes from the biblical book of Jeremiah (31.15) where the prophet talks about Rachel’s inconsolable weeping for her lost children. In Jewish tradition, Rachel’s grief is revered and respected, while in Christianity her cry receives scant attention. Perhaps it’s because the Christian story ends with resolution—there’s a resurrection!—that Christians and many in the dominant culture do not give the practice of lament its due.
In the past several years, I’ve gained a healthy respect for lament. Dealing with cancer or other tough issues in life leads to lament, to a posture of sadness and sorrow. But that’s a hard sell in America much of the time, land of political slogans like, “Happy days are here again!” and “It’s morning in America.” Writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, begins with a chapter about her own entrance into “Cancerland” due to a breast cancer diagnosis. When she found her way to online forums on breast cancer and expressed her lament over her condition—including frustration over the lack of funding for researching breast cancer—other users in these online communities responded with words of caution about Ehrenreich’s negative attitude, telling her they were praying for her so that she might become more positive.
I’ve been thinking a lot about saints. All Saints Day (November 1) coincided with one of my classes studying the lives of medieval female saints. These women were officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church for their heroic displays of compassion and reports of miracles they performed.
It’s also the case that this past Sunday churches around the world honored the saints who have gone before us. Remembered especially were those who died in the past year. At these worship services, bells tolled as each name was read aloud. It was a time to honor the lives of those who passed away, to remember them in death, and to hope for more for all of us who mourn their passing.
I come from a wing of Christianity that does not share in the ongoing Roman Catholic tradition of granting official saintly status to persons performing miracles or living particularly virtuous lives. Nevertheless, in remembering those who’ve gone before us, we still use the word saint.
If it is the case that all of us are children of God, then it seems that all of us are born with huge potential for sainthood. Most of us spend our days far from that ideal; yet it’s true that especially in times of great need, many of us are recipients of grace given by saints in our midst. I know that since my own cancer diagnosis, life has been full of encounters with saints.
October is officially dedicated to raising awareness of breast cancer. Bright pink athletic gear, pink-tinted yogurt containers, and pink-lit buildings broadcast support for those living with breast cancer and those attempting to cure it. As with any good campaign, there are also catchy slogans accompanying the pinking of our surroundings. “Big or Small, Save Them All” is just one of the ditties designed to get us thinking about a disease that killed an estimated 40,000 persons last year.
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer almost four years ago, I’ve had a complicated relationship with popular ways of framing of the fight against breast cancer. Leaving the critiques of the movement’s pink hew to others* I’m interested in how raising awareness has only just started to include information about the most aggressive forms of breast cancer and the stories that accompany them.
By now most of us know something about what I call the breast cancer drill: You find a lump in your breast; you get a mammogram, you’re told the awful news of having breast cancer; you suffer through the trauma of surgery, chemo, and radiation. Then best case scenario you move into remission.
This familiarity with the breast cancer drill was at the heart of my disorientation with my own breast cancer diagnosis. My back broke—not once, but twice—and a biopsy on my back discovered I had . . . stage IV breast cancer?
I’m a woman with breast cancer. The problem is that my path to diagnosis and treatment bears little resemblance to the breast cancer drill many of us know so well. I found no lump; the mammograms I had revealed no tumor; I had no breast surgery, no chemo that led to loss of hair. What does it mean to have breast cancer in a way that differs so drastically from the dominant breast cancer narrative?
In the few years since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve had more conversations about the sad parts of life than I have in all my years before the diagnosis combined. Sharing my own story with others, especially in the form of a book, has provided avenues for others to share their own struggles and grief with me.
After reading my book, a friend shared with me some of her struggles with mental illness. She then asked whether I feel burdened by the frequent conversations about my own—and others’—pain. While I wish we all had much less sorrow in our lives, I’m keenly aware that’s not the case. Talking about the tough stuff simply is what life is about these days. And recently I’ve even come to see it as my new vocation.
In contemporary conversations about vocation, we often talk about finding or choosing a vocation. We take strength-finder inventories; we envision where we’d like to be in ten years and what we need to do to get there. Much reflection on vocation in the past, however, has characterized vocation as something given to us, even when we’d prefer to be doing something else.