Coping With Cancer in Ourselves or Other Loved Ones by Rev. Anthony D. Makar

Almost 200 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson said something which has,
ever since, defined a key aspect of the Unitarian Universalist
spiritual life. What he said was directed specifically towards
preaching, but it is relevant to far beyond that. This is what he
said: “The capital secret of the preaching profession is to
convert life into truth. The true preacher can be known by this, that
he deals out to the people his life-life passed through the fire of
thought.” For me, Emerson is saying that our experiences all have
the potential to convey sacred lessons to us, if we possess the skill
and the will to engage them through the alchemy of our imagination-if
we can open ourselves to the still small voice of Life that is
whispering to us constantly. Our preachers aspire to do this, and so
can we all. The revelation of truth is not sealed. It is ongoing, and
it emerges through all the experiences of our lives, whatever those
experiences happen to be, wonderful or horrible or in-between.

And so today we talk about the experience of cancer. Passing this
through the fire of our thought, converting this into truth, because
our Unitarian Universalism calls us to this. One statistic says that
1/3 of Americans will be diagnosed with some kind of cancer within
their lifetimes, impacting the rest of us who will walk with them
through the valley of the shadow of death and beyond. How many of us
here today are newly diagnosed with cancer, or your cancer has
recurred, or you are enjoying a complete remission and yet there is
still the lingering fear that cancer may strike again at any time? In
addition to these first-hand experiencers of cancer, how many of you
have friends or family with cancer? Cancer is an experience that
touches us all in one way or another.

For myself, it was my grandmother. She had been diagnosed with brain
cancer in 1979, and in 1981 she died. Baba was living in Canada, and
by this time my family had moved to Texas, so I saw her only a few
times during this two-year period. And from these times I remember how
tired she always was from the cancer treatments. I remember how the
left side of her face went slack and flat, and how big her eyes were.
I remember how she had lost all her hair, and how my mom used to
arrange her wig and put make-up on her face and busy herself caring
for her as best as she knew how. I wondered then, as I do now, about
what cancer is, really. Surely it is far more than the irregular
growth of abnormal cells, or a symptom of an inefficient immune
system. Surely fighting cancer is far more than simply excising a
tumor, or treating a malignancy with radiation, or injecting
chemotherapy into a vein. There was my Baba, the grandmother who
always smelled so good; and today, there is a hollowness in every
Christmas for me because she was so much a part of that and now she is
gone. My Baba. Because I was so young, I never really talked with her
about her cancer. Never knew how to ask her about how she saw herself,
what she was going through. Was she like some people, who imagine
cancer to be the ultimate threat and death sentence and are so
panic-driven they say, “I don’t just have cancer, I AM
cancer, cancer has me”? Or, was she like others who refuse this
perspective, who refuse to allow cancer to swallow up all of who they
are, who realize that even if their bodies have cancer, their minds
and their spirits do not. Their minds and their spirits do not, and so
they are focused on living and not on dying. They are free. Which
approach did my Baba take? I’ll never know.

There is a line that comes from the poet Tess Gallagher: “It is
important that we be strengthened by the wisdom of our grieving.”
For all of us, whatever our relationship to cancer might be, this is
the place where coping begins. Understanding the grieving that we go
through as we navigate the endless round of doctors, appointments, and
insurance hassles; or as we encounter other people’s fears and
baggage about cancer; or as we come to learn about all the social
injustices that kick cancer patients and their families when they are
down; or as we feel the loss of a personal sense of control over our
lives; or as we finally lose the illusion that we are never going to
die, or a beloved other is never going to die. The grieving that all
this and more triggers-first denial, then anger, then bargaining, then
depression, and then, finally, acceptance. Not necessarily a neat
sequence of one right after the other; sometimes different phases can
be bunched up together, or you go back and forth. One day, in the
middle of everything, you find yourself laughing hysterically at the
fact that, because of the chemotherapy, you won’t have to shave
your legs or underarms for months. The money you will save from not
having to buy razors! Simply hilarious! But then the next day, you are
right back into depression. The grief process unfolds in its own
unique way. But the good news is that there is an inherent direction
to the grieving energy, which is towards acceptance and a larger, more
meaningful perspective on things. That’s what Tess Gallagher is
trying to say. There is a healing power at the core of the human
spirit, and it knows what to do, and our job is to partner with it and
not fight it. The wisdom of our grieving.

Coping with cancer begins right here-and so does coping with other
kinds of serious and chronic illness as well. So we don’t resist
the grief as it unfolds. We don’t cling to it or overindulge it
either, but we notice it and allow it, we tell our story, and then we
move on.

Denial will happen. People with cancer might, for a time, grit their
teeth and soldier on as if nothing was wrong. That, or family and
friends might all of a sudden try to take control: “Here,”
they say, “you are sick; just stay in bed and we’ll take care
of you.” Of course the intentions are good, yet a crucial point
about fighting cancer has been missed here, which is that a
person’s recovery demands their own direct participation-it
can’t be done for them. Recovery demands that people with cancer
get up out of the bed; it demands that they learn everything they can
about cancer and its treatment; it demands that they partner with
medical professionals, ask them hard questions, choose the best
treatments available; it demands that they eat healthy and exercise
more. This is the hero journey that people with cancer face, and
friends and family need to strengthen them for this. That’s the
job of friends and family and community-to encourage the one suffering
from cancer to be strong, through listening and through simple
compassion. Not to treat them like they are invisible. Not to do it
for them.

For a time, though, grief might lead us to denial. And then it might
lead us to be angry. Intensely angry. Powerfully angry at God or at
the Universe. And angry at the people we love, perhaps for no reason
other than the simple fact that they are there. Partners, for example,
sparring with each other because the anger is raw and raging and wants
release. So one day you have Janice, rushing home after another long
day of work, to care for Betty’s needs. On this day the anger
finally explodes, and Janice says this to Betty: “Betty, I feel
so tired when I get home from work. I know that it’s not your
fault that you are ill, but it really hurts me to know that you are
here and no one makes an effort to do laundry, straighten up the
house, or start dinner. Don’t you care how I feel? I can’t
take much more of this!” Can you see Janice saying this, and can
you imagine the guilt she’ll feel later on? And as for Betty: can
you imagine her own angry response, coming out of the depths of her
own frustration and guilt?

Anger is part of the grief cycle, and so is bargaining, and so is
depression. People learning finally that rage won’t make the
disease go away, and neither will wheeling and dealing. Resulting in
enormous sadness. Listlessness. A sense of worthlessness. The feeling
of being wrapped up in a cocoon the color of ashes; the feeling of
being tightly bound within gray walls; one’s sense of normality
feeling like it is melting, as well as all that has ever been taken
for granted. We wonder if and when it will ever end. Why is life like
this? Why?

Yet if we can trust the process… If we can, for others and for
ourselves, have a deep and abiding sense of compassion…. “It is
important that we be strengthened by the wisdom of our grieving.”
What is really happening, I believe, is that Life is preparing us to
face the spiritual transformation opportunity that cancer and other
life crises represent. The only bad emotion is a stuck emotion. If we
can give ourselves to the power of grief, it will take us beyond the
cocoon, to where the spirit, if not the body, has wings.

I don’t know if my Baba ever got there. Perhaps she got stuck in
the horrible idea that she just didn’t have cancer but that cancer
had her, that she WAS cancer. I hope not. I hope she discovered
something else, that even though her body had cancer, her mind and
spirit were free…..

I do know that people like Marcia Fishman have discovered this, as
well as Greg Anderson. Let me say a little about Greg. He’s the
author of the wonderful book Cancer: 50 Essential Things to Do, which
I recommend very highly. He writes, “In 1984 I was given a
thirty-days-to-live prognosis. It was lung cancer. I’d had one
lung removed, but four months later the cancer was back. This time it
invaded my lymph system. The surgeon put his hand on my shoulder and
said, ‘Greg, the tiger is out of the cage. Your cancer has come
roaring back. I give you about thirty days to live.'” This is
Greg Anderson’s story, and he continues, “After a couple of
days [feeling numb and angry and depressed], believing I would die, I
made a profound decision. I decided to live! … I determined to live
each day I was given to the very best of my ability. I chose not to
focus on the despair implicit in the surgeon’s words; I would
instead adopt a stance of hopefulness.” This is what Greg
Anderson did-this is what his acceptance of his cancer looked like.
Acceptance does not mean giving in to fear and throwing in the towel.
It means coming to see the world, and oneself in it, in a radically
different way. Not full of fear, but full of hope.

This hope perspective involves many different things, starting with
the belief that cancer is not an automatic death sentence, that
there’s reasonable room for hope. Now, I’m not talking about
an “everything is going to be all right-there’s no problem
I’m fine” perspective. That’s denial. Instead, I’m
talking about a recognition that cancer may or may not mean death and
that the future remains open even if some doctor gives you only one
month to live. A doctor gave Greg Anderson only one month to live, and
15 years later there he is, publishing his book on coping with cancer.
No one can possibly know how long anyone has left to live. And so
cancer survivors take the first step of believing. “Yes, I may
die, but I also may live. And I am going to invest my time, whatever
the length, living the best way I know.” Cancer survivors take
this step, and they keep on taking this step, even to the very end.
Writer E.B. White shares this story about his beloved wife Katherine,
out in their garden, planting bulbs in the last autumn of her life. He
writes, “There was something comical yet touching in her
bedraggled appearance … the small hunched-over figure, her studied
absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another
spring, oblivious to the ending of her days (which she knew perfectly
well was near at hand) sitting there with her detailed chart under
those dark skies in dying October, calmly plotting the
resurrection.” That’s it. You calmly plot the resurrection.
You make the decision, and you live into it every day of your life.

That’s one part of the hope perspective, which frees our hearts
and spirits. Here’s another: a new understanding of what true
wellness means. And I’ll tell you right now: it’s not perfect
physical health. It’s wholeness. I’m mindful here of a
Japanese tradition of mending broken objects. As part of the mending
process, they accentuate the damage by filling in the cracks with
gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a
history, it becomes more beautiful. Not perfect, but more whole.
“You see, we start moving into paradoxes here. Sometimes illness
evokes health in people. People who are not physically healthy can
seem very healthy, very alive. And some of the most boring people are
those who are jogging and eating health food as if the physical health
of the body is the sole goal in life.” This last part comes from
Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor who specializes in the care of
people with life-threatening illnesses, and ultimately her point is
this: true wellness is not an absence of pain or illness. It’s
about the presence of larger vision and meaning. Physical suffering is
just not the worst thing that can happen to us; the worst thing that
can happen is not believing in anything worth suffering for.

In wholeness is the meaning of our lives, and illness can be a doorway
to it. It challenges us to get clear about the hope and the purpose
that will get us up out of bed each morning. Suddenly the
Why? question we shake like a fist at God or at the Universe
changes, because who can tell why bad things happen? Who can tell with
certainty why this person gets cancer and another does not? There can
be all sorts of theories, but we just don’t know for sure. And so
the real question changes. It becomes, instead, What next? What
now?
We can’t know why, but we do know that the pain and
confusion we might feel right now doesn’t have to last forever. It
doesn’t always have to be like this. And so we ask, What
now?
How we respond is up to us. THAT’S in our control, even
if the occurrence of cancer in our bodies or the body of a loved one
is not.

And with this, the direction of our entire life orientation becomes
inside-out. The reverse, outside-in, is when one’s physical
condition determines how our spirit will be; so if our body is ill,
then our spirit must fall in line and be ill as well. But life from
the inside-out is sheer triumph. It means that even where a physical
illness like cancer persists, there can still be a healing of the
heart. Fearlessness can replace fear. There can be gratitude for the
gifts of life, even if life is imperfect. There can be forgiveness, of
self, of others, of the Universe. There can be reconciliation with
one’s body, where we learn to accept it as it is and live into a
newer and more appropriate lifestyle. There can be healthier and more
effective habits of communication and relationship. There can also be
a deeper empathy for others who suffer and, out of the infinite depths
of the Divine Spark within, out of that vast well of compassion, we
would seek to be healers. “To suffer is not the worst thing that
can happen to us; the worst thing is not to believe in anything worth
suffering for.”

It means that, in the midst of cancer, we plot the resurrection.
Cancer becomes a spiritual teacher that opens our eyes to far more
that what we thought possible. It doesn’t mean we stop feeling
fear. It doesn’t mean we never feel sad. It does mean that we show
up to life, every day, no matter what. One wisdom teacher says that
all spiritual paths have four steps: show up, pay attention, tell the
truth, and don’t be attached to the results.” We just keep
showing up. That’s what we do.

Earlier, I mentioned that my Baba always used to smell so good to me.
Here’s why: she was always sautéing onions in butter, as
part of creating her splendid Ukrainian meals. What used to rise up
off of her like a heavenly aroma was the smell of caramelized onions.
I dedicate the following poem to her. It’s by Jane Flanders,
called “Planting Onions.”

It is right
that I fall on my knees
on this damp, stony cake,
that I bend my back
and bow my head.
Sun warms my shoulders,
the nape of my neck,
and the air is tangy with rot.
Bulbs rustle like spirits
in their sack.
I bury each one
a trowel’s width under.
May they take hold,
rising green in time
to help us weep and live.

Amen.