Responding to Cancer

A family friend is going through chemotherapy to get at a bit of cancerous tissue that the doctor found. She had her head shaved so that she could preempt the shock of having her hair coming out in tufts. Although the cancer is not very serious, this lady is like an auxiliary mother to me and thus I am particularly concerned for her well-being. Many people survive chemotherapy. They live for many years and never have cancer again. Some people have particularly exciting forms of cancer that resist all attempts at treatment, and so they die within months of diagnosis. In either case, cancer and chemotherapy affect people subtly from the inside.

I once punched someone and I had to stop playing bagpipes for five or six weeks because my right pinky got messed up. The right pinky is very important for playing bagpipes. I would not have been so badly set back if I had lost my left pinky. During those weeks of pinky recovery, I went to class, I went to church, and did everything like normal except to practice the bagpipes. My finger hurt, but I was still energetic and active.

Chemotherapy patients often lose their hair, sometimes lose weight or get fatigue, or have digestive issues. The drugs are supposed to kill the cancer cells, but they do not kindly distinguish between patients and their cancer. My dad died when I was seventeen, but he died of a heart attack and not a creeping sickness that sliced away at his vitality. The heart attack struck him quickly and treatment ended upon his death; cancer slowly grinds down a person’s life and treatment might seem to hurt more than it helps. There are different ways to respond to suffering, and it is easier to show the wrong way than to show the right one.

Cynicism has incomparable potency because of the human condition–we will all die, whether quickly or slowly, a surprise or a long-foretold doom. Gallows humor is best when you or someone you know is about to get hanged. However, proper gallows humor always responds to externally imposed circumstances–no one will joke with you if you hang yourself. Cynicism grabs the heart because it is very true–if it takes a grain of truth to float a lie, cynicism comes with all the grains in the rice cooker. Even if you do not know how chemotherapy will turn out in a given case, cynicism is not good for your soul whether your friend or family lives or dies.

Conversely, Chicken Soup for the Soul positive thinking does not fit the bill either. Things will not always turn out well. Most of the time they will, but gravity has its place. Of course, there are times when the soul is sick and it is necessary for it to take something easier to digest than a reading from John Calvin on the sovereignty of God in relation to suffering and death. A little humor helps here. I was with my family when we were driving back from church. My  mom wanted to drive by a housing development with $600,000 houses going up. As we were looking at the houses, my sister asked jokingly why we did not just move in. My mom said, “Not enough life insurance.”

People say that you have to see “both sides of the coin.” Life is like a coin, and it has two sides: the good and the bad, the happy and the unhappy, and ease and difficulty. Life is also like a coin in that it is wagered, spent, and ultimately tossed into a fountain. We have to have enough gravity to stay on the ground but enough levity to stand up. Cancer is harder to deal with than some things because it takes a long time to figure out  when it will be over for good.

In sum, it is hard to endure or watch someone deal with cancer or go through chemotherapy. Hope in God is largely for the salvation of your soul, not always for deliverance from a given trial. I pray that you will find the peace and comfort that God gives and the ways in which he gives it (particularly that you would find the ways in which he gives it).

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