As a religion professor, I spend my days talking—out loud and on paper—about the really big questions of life. My conversation partners, be they students, church members, friends or family, are living those questions, sorting through inheritances, exploring the gaps, striving to be faithful to what they believe to be true. This profession of mine affords me the privilege of getting to talk about God in ways that are always informed by the questions, claims and wagers of others.
Then cancer came along and interrupted the conversation.
As an expert talker, I suddenly was no expert at all. A novice with a cancer story different from any other I knew. Breast cancer was the diagnosis, but my narrative did not include finding a lump, removing a breast or losing any hair. A broken back triggered the stage IV cancer diagnosis and a lousy prognosis: five years out, eighty percent of those who have what I have are dead. My lack of expertise, unfamiliarity with the journey, and fear of what lay ahead conspired against me. Cancer left me tongue-tied, groping for words.
Slowly, falteringly, words have returned and I’m learning to talk about cancer while talking about life and love, grief and grace. Refracted through the lens of cancer, my life as wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and professor looks very different than it did before cancer. Refracted through the lens of cancer, faith looks different too.
By telling my story of life and faith with stage IV cancer, I hope to offer what I wish I had had: a way of talking faith in the midst of cancer and talking cancer in light of faith; a way of speaking that resists conventional language about God’s relationship to human suffering, particularly in its cancerous form. I’m not interested in any sentimental “God saved me from cancer” tales; instead I’m interested in accountings of faith’s faltering speech in the face of grim prognoses and brief glimpses of hope.
No doubt about it: cancer has changed virtually every aspect of my life. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is my understanding of myself as more sinner than saint. In much popular talk about cancer, there’s a temptation to cloak cancer patients with a disease-induced righteousness. Or to suggest that those of us suffering from cancer possess a saint-like status that separates us from those who are cancer-free. But experience tells me that even though I’ve suffered much from cancer—even though I have undergone significant character adjustments because of the cancer—sainthood remains elusive, out of reach.
The fact that I’m still a sinner is precisely why I’m stuck on hope. As a person who can never quite get it right, I’m always hoping for more in this life—more chances to be gracious, kind, loving. Beyond these basic hopes, new hopes for this life have become important, too: hope for continued inactivity of the cancer in my body and in the bodies of so many others, for psychological and spiritual courage to live with this disease, for the gift of living long enough to see my daughters grow into adulthood.
In addition to hoping for more in this life, I also hope for more beyond. I hope that the promises of God are true: that there is more to life beyond this earthly one; and that in that life beyond there will be no more crying, no more dying, only light, only love, only joy.
Please join me in continuing the conversation.