Cancer is just a word until it comes close. Until a doctor says the biopsy was positive and you know it has invaded part of your body, it is just a word. Until you hold the hand of your beloved feeling helpless, trying to imagine the road ahead, cancer is a distant tragedy suffered by others. Until you bear the title “survivor,” and cancer is an indelible word tattooed in your very being, cancer can be rather abstract. Cancer is a terrifying word that nurtures fears of pain, suffering and death.
Last week my wife Cyndi, for the second time in her life, heard a doctor say, “You have cancer.” The word brought with it all that you might expect: Questions about what would happen next; deeper questions like, “Why?” and “How?” The presence of cancer in her body and in our life together rewrote our plans, our hopes, our being, for the coming months. It is now written into our lives and cannot be erased. Cancer has spoken.
This time, (she is a seven-year survivor of Cervical cancer) the cancer is in her breast. It was detected early because she dutifully went for her annual mammogram (Sisters, DO THIS!). Cyndi will have surgery later this month, which will be followed with radiation treatments. After the final reports are in following surgery, a longer-term plan will develop.
Cyndi is calling on the communion of saints to walk with her in this journey. She is a very private person in many ways, but she knows that we cannot go it alone. Our sister, Asta Twedt, reminded us of a line from the hymn Blest Be the Tie That Binds: “we share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear.” It is a riff on Paul’s words “Bear one another’s burdens.” (Gal 6:2) Cyndi has gathered a group of prayer partners who will walk with her. She will ask for help when she needs it. You can pray for her and drop her a card if you wish.
As we wrestled with our practical and more existential questions, we’ve been thinking about prayer. We all regularly pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Save us from the time of trial.” At first flush it seems like this prayer has been anything but answered. Cancer is a trial. As Cyndi noticed, however, the real trial is not the disease. It is keeping faith in the face of the fear.
The trial is in how the word cancer contends for a place as the final, ultimate word over your life. Christ saves us from that trial by being the Word that alone speaks last, finally, ultimately. Death and disease do not get to define us. Resurrection, life, and healing do. Look to the cross and empty tomb and you will see that love and life get the final say in all matters, even cancer. Cyndi and I both know that God has the final word in all things.
We have also been thinking about Paul’s instruction to the Philippians: I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13). We often think of this as an encouraging word to fulfill our dreams, to achieve more, to fly higher. But Paul writes this from prison. He is enduring a trial. He is really saying that he can gain his freedom or die in prison and Christ will give him the strength to persevere. That is what will keep us going. Cyndi knows she will never be alone or left to fend with the cancer without the presence and help of Christ and his people.
How am I? Well, it is not about me. I am certainly the caregiver in chief and the closest companion for Cyndi on this journey. I would be Pastor-obvious were I to tell you what you can surmise – worried, harried, focused, concerned, etc. I have heard this horrible word all too many times in my life. I’ve lost my mother, grandmothers, aunt, cousin, close friends to this damnable disease. I was a chaplain in a cancer hospital and have walked with or buried way too many beloved members of my “flocks” because of it. How am I? I hate this disease as deeply as anything in this world. Yet, I also know that it will NEVER have the final word, because of the Word made flesh, dwelling among us – Jesus Christ.
Pax Christi – Tim & Cyndi Olson