Tag Archives: cancer

advent-God-mindfulness

Getting my attention

When my friend Jim had brain cancer, many people sent him cards and notes. I thought I had gone through all of them, and then I found one more box. In it, I found this:

The Brick

 A young and successful executive was traveling down a neighborhood street, going a bit too fast in his new Jaguar. He was watching for kids darting out from between parked cars and slowed down when he thought he saw something.

As his car passed, no children appeared. Instead, a brick smashed into the Jag’s side door! He slammed on the brakes and backed the Jag back to the spot where the brick had been thrown.

The angry driver then jumped out of the car, grabbed the nearest kid and pushed him up against a parked car shouting, “What was that all about and who are you? Just what the heck are you doing? That’s a new car and that brick you threw is going to cost a lot of money. Why did you do it?”

The young boy was apologetic. “Please, mister, please. I’m sorry but I did not know what else to do,” he pleaded. “I threw the brick because no one else would stop.”

With tears dripping down his face and off his chin, the youth pointed to a spot just around a parked car. “It’s my brother,” he said. “He rolled off the curb and fell out of his wheelchair and I can’t lift him up.”

Now sobbing, the boy asked the stunned executive, “Would you please help me get him back into the wheelchair? He’s hurt and he’s too heavy for me.”

Moved beyond words, the driver tried to swallow the rapidly swelling lump in his throat. He hurriedly lifted the handicapped boy back into the wheelchair, then took out a linen handkerchief and dabbed at the fresh scrapes and cuts.  A quick look told him everything was going to be okay.

“Thank you, and may God bless you,” the grateful child told the stranger.

Too shocked for words, the man simply watched the boy push the wheelchair down the sidewalk toward their home.

It was a long, slow walk back to the Jaguar. The damage was very noticeable, but the driver never bothered to repair the dented side door. He kept the dent there to remind him of this message: “Don’t go through life so fast that someone has to throw a brick at you to get your attention!” God whispers in our souls and speaks to our hearts. Sometimes when we don’t have time to listen, He has to throw a brick at us. It’s our choice to listen or not.

A sticky note was attached: “I know you don’t need this, but someone you know might.”

In the ways that brain cancer got our attention, slowed us down and shifted our focus, I think it was a brick.

This Advent, I am praying to be aware of the ways God is trying to get my attention.

advent-God-mindfulness

 

 

 

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God-cancer-hope

Why words matter

The last thing you say to someone might be the last thing you say to him. These words came to me as a memory from the day my friend Jim had a seizure which left him unconscious. That day ended with a diagnosis of a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer.

In the midst of being told that Jim may never regain consciousness, I wondered, “What was the last thing I said to him?”

Fortunately, I had spoken to him shortly before the seizure and my words were positive.

I know, though, that I don’t end every conversation, every interaction on a positive note. Sometimes I speak out of frustration or anger. Other times, I am distracted or tired or…God-cancer-hopeThat question, though, from the day Jim had a seizure has stayed with me and is a reminder to try to end every conversation on a positive note. That is particularly significant because I work at a cancer support center.

One of the women who came to the center for a couple of years had not been around for a while. Phone calls and messages went unanswered. We knew she had stopped treatment and began to wonder if she was still alive.

Sometimes families don’t notify us for weeks or even months, so we often live in a kind of limbo. But, we learned of this woman’s death within a few days after she had died.

Remembering this particular woman, I wondered what had been my last words to her. I hope they were something that let her know that I was glad to see her and that I cared about her. I hope she felt accepted, consoled and even uplifted.

She had been very realistic about the path she had chosen. She knew that without treatment, the cancer would end her life. But, I don’t think she knew that the last time she came to our center would be the last time. I did not know that the last words I said to her were the last words I would ever say to her.

Some days, I am overwhelmed by the sadness of my work. People learning they have cancer, enduring treatment, anxious for results from scans, some of them dying—it can be so sad.

Other days, though, I am overjoyed by the good news of my work. People learning that the cancer is in remission or that they are cancer-free, optimistic that life holds promise, hopeful for a future they once feared would never come.

Balancing these emotions, this ups and downs of cancer and its many ripple effects, can be difficult for me. God invites me to hold both the joys and sorrows.

I am reminded of St. Paul’s words: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all things through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

Strengthen me, Lord.

resiliency-faith-cancer

Fashioned by family

Last weekend, I drove my 91-year old mother to northern Michigan to visit her younger sister. I hadn’t been up north for two years, and my aunt wasn’t doing very well then. Now, though, she is doing remarkably well; it is amazing what a few medication tweaks and some lifestyle changes can do.

They caught up on news of family and friends, and we played cards in the evening. My cousin visited and brought pumpkins from his garden and apples from his tree.

Conversations with my mother and aunt gave me family details. I learned which uncle was my grandmother’s favorite and which uncle was lazy. I learned that my Aunt Betty’s real name was Scholastica and that we were never close to my grandmother’s side of the family, but they did not know why.

My mother and I visited the cemetery after Sunday Mass, but it was drizzling and windy so she stayed in the car while I collected the flower-covered crosses my cousin had put at our relatives’ graves last spring. Most of my relatives are buried there, including my grandparents and my dad. It is the place my mother wants to be buried.

These days went the way so many others have during past visits up north.

While we were there, I kept thinking about how much of our lives are shaped by our families—and where God’s grace enters the picture to enable us to become more than our pasts. Like most women, I have watched myself become my mother and sometimes I rejoice in that, and other times I rebel.

My mother is one of those tenacious, feisty, determined elders. She does her own grocery shopping, tends her garden and cooks; she is strong and fiercely independent (and, yes, she still drives).

She taught me to be resilient and persistent.

A friend in college said to me, “I wish my mother had taught me to be as persistent as your mother taught you,” when I refused to quit looking for something she had lost.

Never give up could be my mother’s motto.resiliency-faith-cancerMy father used to tell us, “If you come home and think I am dead, go out for another hour to make sure.” He never wanted to go to a hospital, and when he had a major stroke, my mother had the inner strength not to call 911. She gave him the kind of death he wanted—at home with family.

My father died ten years before Jim’s death, and I know that her example gave me the strength to give Jim the kind of death he wanted.

For example, when his oncologist insisted Jim be hospitalized for a blood clot, I said “No,” because Jim was done with hospitals by then. I was terrified, and I remember thinking about my mother in that moment and how terrified she must have felt when my dad had that stroke.

I am grateful that I can see the blessings in how my family shaped me.resiliency-faith-cancer

 

retreat-kindness-God

Being kind

Every year, I facilitate a session for a group of long-term volunteers as part of their Fall Day of Reflection. We begin the day with a prayer service that the organizers call a “milling prayer.”  A variety of quotes, pasted onto colorful construction paper, are scattered across the floor. The participants then “mill” around the room, reading each of the quotes and picking up the one that resonates with him or her.

This year, Anne Lamott’s words caught my attention: “You can either practice being right or practice being kind.”

Perhaps the idea of being right resonates with me because I grew up believing I was wrong most of the time. I lacked confidence in myself and my beliefs, and even when I knew the right answer, I usually offered it with a question mark.

Uncertainty and doubt defined my young life.

But as I got older and my confidence grew, so did my delight in being right.

One problem with knowing I am right (and delighting in it) is that it can lead to a smug self-righteousness, which, I know, is quite unattractive. So I try to temper my enthusiasm for being right.retreat-kindness-GodIn my work with people who have been touched by cancer, I have many opportunities to choose between being right and being kind.retreat-kindness-GodFacing a terminal illness can raise all sorts of questions, doubts and fears. Many people ask, Why me?

Sometimes there are answers as to why someone got cancer, but I have heard that 80% of cancers are just bad luck.

That, of course, leads to another question: Why am I the one to have such bad luck?

Frequently, people have difficulty facing the reality of their situation and will question a doctor’s ability to predict the path of cancer.

For example, a doctor might say, “You will need to be on chemotherapy for the rest of your life,” meaning that without chemo, the cancer will grow unchecked and the person will die.

I have heard doctors described as “rude” for saying this. Quite often people ask, “How does he (or she) know how long I am going to live?” Fair enough.

When I first started in this job, I would suggest the doctor was basing this prognosis on experience, (as in, “most people in your situation need chemo to keep the cancer in check”), but the response I got was usually some version of pshaw.retreat-kindness-God

I quickly learned that why me questions are usually rhetorical—people are not really seeking answers. They are actually looking for someone who will listen to them, acknowledge the dreadfulness of their situation and accept them where they are—fears and all. They are seeking kindness in the midst of desolation.

In truth, there may be no satisfactory explanation as to why someone gets cancer, and the doctor may or may not be right in predicting the path cancer will take; so much of life is mystery.

My job is to practice being kind instead of being right.retreat-kindness-God

 

God-hope-cancer

Reality check

Working at a cancer support center offers many opportunities to hear people talk about hope. Most often, people hope for a cure—or at least remission—of the cancer that has taken up residence in their bodies.

It takes courage to endure chemotherapy and radiation, which disrupt daily life and can be painful (sometimes very painful). Often the treatments work and the cancer is cured or goes into remission. But sometimes the treatments don’t work. What happens to hope then?hope 4Recently, a woman came in after her oncologist had informed her that the treatment had not worked. Months of painful radiation and chemotherapy had failed to stop the growth of the tumors in various parts of her body. The doctor recommended a different type of treatment—something experimental—and this woman had made an appointment to discuss this new treatment.

Before that appointment, though, she wanted to talk about her situation. “Even if I take another round of treatment,” she said, “I know I will be right back here at some point, maybe in three months or six months, but this is where I am going to end up.”

I remained silent, but inwardly agreed with her that it seemed unlikely that the cancer was going to go away.

“My question is,” she continued, “how do I talk to myself about this? How do I wrap my head around the fact that I am going to die?”

Good questions.

I applauded her courage for even facing this reality.God-hope-cancerIn the three years I have been in this job, I have only met a few other people who were willing to admit they were going to die and who wanted to try to figure out how they could best live until they died. Mostly, people seem to deny the reality; they keep hoping for a cure or remission until the moment they die.

And sometimes, even when the person who is dying accepts it, their families and friends refuse to admit it, depriving the person of expressing what they need to at the end of life.God-hope-cancerWe then talked about hope.

What is she left with, she wondered, when her hopes for remission have been dashed? I suggested hope for something else—for inner peace, for gratitude for the life she has left, for the ability to see goodness in the midst of struggle.God-hope-cancerOne thing I have learned is that if we allow our fears of dying to shape our lives, we can never really live.

God invites us to live every day trusting in the kindness of the people around us and in the goodness of God. That looks different for each of us every day. Some days, it is easier to be full of hope and joy and gratitude; other days, even finding one small gift or grace can be a challenge.

My father used to say, “No one gets out of this life alive.”  I hope I always remember that and live in the freedom it brings.God-hope-cancer

vulnerability-trust-God

Taking risks

“To what end?” my friend Jim used to ask me—usually when I was considering something he thought pointless or even foolish. One incident I remember had to do with a guy I had known when I lived in Canada.

This was a guy I was thinking of marrying—until I found out he was seeing someone else. Ouch! He apologized and asked for forgiveness, and I forgave him. But I was back in the States by then, and I never got around to writing to tell him I forgave him.vulnerability-trust-GodSeveral years later, I happened to see him, and I was genuinely friendly; I had forgiven him. He was so happy—and relieved—I felt a bit bad that I had not written to him. Afterward, he wrote to thank me for forgiving him. His letter included an update on his life (I already knew from mutual friends that the other relationship had not worked out), and he said it would be good to hear from me.

Hmm. Would I write back? “To what end?” Jim asked.

I understood his question. What was I going to gain by reconnecting with someone who had hurt me? Why would I take that chance? What did I hope would happen?

In the end, the impulse to respond passed, and I never wrote back. But I had saved his letter, which I discovered the other day when I was going through some boxes of old letters.

Twenty-five years have passed since he broke my heart, and I have no ill will toward him; I have moved on (ok, perhaps not completely since I have never risked the possibility of marriage again).vulnerability-trust-GodWhile I was in Ireland recently, I visited with two women I also knew from when I lived in Canada. I had not seen either of them in many years and had reconnected with them through Facebook.

When one of them suggested a visit, I responded without hesitation, even though I could hear Jim’s voice in my head asking, “To what end?”

I had no answer except that I wanted to see them—no need to justify or have next steps planned out. I just wanted to reconnect.vulnerability-trust-GodProtecting ourselves from possible hurt is important, and I know that Jim’s question usually came out of his concern for me. He saw the pain I had gone through when my heart was broken, and he cared enough about me to want to shield me from further hurt.

I was always more of a risk-taker than Jim, which was one of the things he loved about me. With risk comes more potential for hurt.

I have been keeping my heart safely locked up for a long time now, not making myself vulnerable or risking pain. To what end? I ask myself. Am I happier living in a cocoon?

When Jim had cancer and was pondering life with intentionality, he often said, “Think big thoughts.” Acting on those big thoughts involves risk; I am ready.vulnerability-trust-God