Tag Archives: 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

 

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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

God-hope-letting go

Holding on and letting go

A woman I know became sick a few months ago—suddenly. I learned about her illness through social media. Her family asked for prayers and said she was “gravely ill,” but it was not until they used the word “hospice” that I realized how gravely ill she was. In a matter of a few weeks, she went from posting pictures of her husband, children and grandchildren on social media—to dying.

Life is so fragile.

When death is near, what is happening in the rest of the world seems distant and unimportant. The passing of a loved one becomes the most important thing and offers great clarity about what really matters.

I try to remember those moments—the times when I had great clarity about what truly matters in life.God-hope-letting goThese thoughts came back to me while reading the Gospel of Mark. I wonder if St. Mark had clarity as to what was really important, if he had a sense of urgency about spreading the story of Jesus’ life and message.

I thought of how God uses us to spread the Good News. Was Mark a writer? Or was he just compelled to write the story of Jesus? As I pondered Mark’s mission, I was reminded of some notes I received when my friend Jim was dying from brain cancer.

Several friends wrote to me during Jim’s illness reminding me that we were living the Paschal mystery—facing death and resurrection every day. It was true that we knew Jim would die soon and yet every day we found a way to laugh and every day we recited our litany of gratitude.

Jim was unable to read for most of the time he was sick, so I read his mail to him, and I also read any notes I received. One of the notes about the Paschal mystery sparked a conversation about the everyday deaths we faced.

Jim’s physical decline was an obvious death, but there were others that seemed as significant. We kept being faced with situations where we needed to let go so that we could truly live.

Holding on and letting go was part of our daily conversation.

At some point, I realized that it was not just at the time of one’s death, but that living the Paschal mystery was a continual invitation to see things in new ways, to look from different angles and to be open to change.God-hope-letting goAs I reflected, the words to Unsteady by X Ambassadors, popped into my mind.

Hold

Hold on

Hold on to me

‘Cause I’m a little unsteady

A little unsteady…If you love me, don’t let go.

Holding on can offer a sense of security and stability, but there’s always the question, What am I holding on to?

While our world may seem to be spiraling out of control, Christians are called to remain “steadfast in faith” (1 Peter 5:9), not caving in to popular culture or the “prowling Satan” but holding on to Jesus’ message of hope.

 

reflection-God-prayer

Slow me down, Lord

Slow me down, Lord.

Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind.

Steady my hurried pace with a vision of the eternal reach of time.

Give me, amid the confusion of this day, the calmness of the everlasting hills.

Break the tensions of my nerves and muscles with the soothing music of the singing streams that live in my memory. Help me to know the magical restoring power of sleep.

Teach me the art of taking minute vacations — of slowing down to look at a flower, to chat with a friend, to pat a dog, to read a few lines from a good book. Remind me each day of the fable of the hare and tortoise, that I may know that the race is not always to the swift — there is more to life than increasing its speed.

Let me look upward into the branches of the towering oak and know that it grew great and strong because it grew slowly and well.

Slow me down, Lord, and inspire me to send my roots deep into the soil of life’s enduring values, that I may grow toward the start of my greater destiny.

~Richard Cardinal Cushing

We live in a culture that seems obsessed with speed. Our everyday language affirms our preoccupation with speed: we have fast-food restaurants with drive-through windows, expressways and instant messaging. We can’t seem to stop or even slow down.

I recently read that Michigan is increasing the speed limit to 75 miles per hour on several roads because that was how fast people were driving anyway.

Faster is better seems to be our national mantra.

And now we have added busyness to the equation—because moving fast means we finished everything and then, what? Have some empty space in our lives? No time for doing nothing—we have to keep moving and doing.

I think Cardinal Cushing was onto something, though, when he wrote the Slow me down, Lord prayer.

My brother recently visited from Arizona and we went on morning walks at a park on the lake near my house. Swans, ducks and geese swam by as people fished from the shoreline or out in boats. No rush, no hurry, no busyness—just life slowly going by.reflection-God-prayerI can easily fill up my days with lots of activities and then rush around to accomplish as much as possible. But that is not how I want to live. I want to have periods of silence every day, to ponder the glory of creation and to pay attention to the gifts God is giving me.

I want to be available to the people God brings to me, to be able to sit and listen to what they need to say. At the cancer support center where I work, someone invites me every day to slow down, to take a few minutes to listen to their joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of the cancer journey.

 

Slow me down, Lord.reflection-God-prayer

God-blessing-hope-cancer

Everyday blessings

“…the works of God are to be declared and made known.” (Tobit 12:7)

Before Mass every Sunday, our Pastor declares, God is good, and the congregation responds, all the time. All the time, he says, and we affirm, God is good.

This ritual helps prepare me for worship, and I try to be present to these words and allow images of God’s goodness from the previous week to float into my consciousness. God’s goodness is something I can take for granted since it happens all the time. I need to remind myself that God’s goodness is not humdrum or tedious, but rather is a great gift that needs to be declared and made known.

But, how do I tell of God’s works in my life?

When I was clearing out my journals last week, I came across a Gratitude Journal—lists of things for which I was grateful, an accounting of God’s generosity to me in everyday life. No narrative—just the facts.God-blessing-hope-cancerBut writing things in a journal is not the same as declaring and making known. Journaling is a good thing to do—to remind myself of all the blessings I received in a day—but if it stops there, I feel like I am missing something. Declaring and making known imply telling others about the good works of God.God-blessing-hope-cancerLast fall, we had an intern from a local university at the cancer support center where I work. She told me that when the internship opportunities were posted, no one wanted the cancer support center. Cancer? Too difficult, too sad, too depressing. But this young woman was up for the challenge. She worked at a doctor’s office and had experience with people getting bad health news and making decisions about treatment and sometimes having to face the fact that treatment was not working.

“The other interns don’t know what they are missing,” she said one day. We were reflecting on the good things that happen at work every day.

Yes, there are difficulties and sadness and plenty of reasons for people to be depressed, but there are also many opportunities for joy, hope and gratitude as people accept and encourage one another.

Even through the anxiety of a cancer diagnosis and the ugliness of treatment, God’s works are evident. Perhaps it is in the deepest suffering that God can do his best work.

This past week, a man brought his fiancée to a support group. He and I chatted while she was in the group. He told me that he was tired of hearing her say, “You don’t know what I am going through,” and he was happy to have found this place where she could be with others who do know what she is going through. His relief was palpable. After chatting for a while, he said, “I think I will move up our wedding date.” Now that is a sign of hope!

God is good all the time. All the time, God is good. Declare it.God-blessing-hope-cancer

god-blessings-transformation

You are worth more than gold

Last weekend, I returned to Philadelphia for a friend’s thirtieth birthday celebration. Last weekend also marked the fifth anniversary of my friend Jim’s death, and I commemorated that occasion with Mass and dinner with friends.

I had lived in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years and have friends there who have known me for most of my adult life.

One friend asked me if I had come to see any upside to the time of Jim’s illness and death. I reminded her that I believe every curse has a blessing, and I recounted some of the blessings from that difficult time.god-blessings-transformationJim used to tell me to “take it in” whenever someone paid me a compliment.

Low self-esteem had plagued me from an early age, and I didn’t really believed the positive things people said to me. Each time Jim told me to take it in I knew I was minimizing or dismissing a compliment—a habit so deeply ingrained that I was unaware I was doing it. He never seemed to tire of reminding me that people appreciated me, even though I was blind to my own gifts and talents.god-blessings-transformationBut in the process of caring for Jim, a switch got tripped, and I started to be able to take it in. I began to believe the compliments.

While Jim was received radiation, we met weekly with his radiologist and I would report on Jim’s reaction to the treatment. During one of these meetings, the radiologist said to me, “You are an accurate report.” “I am,” I thought.

I had realized during Jim’s illness that I can deal with most anything as long as I know what is happening. My reports were accurate, and I was able to take in the radiologist’s affirmation.

“You are doing the best you can for Jim,” the radiology receptionist said to me one day when I was particularly emotional and weepy. I took in her affirmation, too. I was doing the best I could, and Jim not only lived months beyond original expectations, but his life was good.god-blessings-transformationAbout six months into Jim’s illness, his neurosurgeon said, “If I was just looking at your scans, I would be deeply concerned. But talking to you and looking at you, you seem to be doing quite well.” “Thank you,” I said, and I meant it. I had come to realize that Jim was doing well at least in part because of the care I was giving him.

These little experiences began to add up, and I started to see myself differently. My self-esteem was being bolstered during this very difficult time. I was actually functioning fairly well, and I was doing the best I could for Jim.

While Jim’s brain cells were being destroyed by cancer, my negative self-image was also being destroyed and my brain cells were being reorganized into a more accurate report.

“You are gold,” Jim said to me one day. “Thank you,” I replied, as I took in his compliment and believed him.god-blessings-transformation