Saturday, April 26, 2008

April 26, 2008 - Comfort and Strength

I’ve subscribed, this month, to a short-term “e-course” on Spirituality and Illness, through the website, There are brief, daily readings that arrive by e-mail, and an online message board participants can use to communicate with one another. Yesterday’s topic was “Find a Source of Comfort.” I was struck by the following excerpt from a book, No Enemies Within: A Creative Process for Discovering What’s Right About What’s Wrong, by Dawna Markova (Conari Press, 1994):

“When I was in the hospital, the one person whose presence I welcomed was a woman who came to sweep the floors with a large push broom. She was the only one who didn't stick things in, take things out, or ask stupid questions. For a few minutes each night, this immense Jamaican woman rested her broom against the wall and sank her body into the turquoise plastic chair in my room. All I heard was the sound of her breath in and out, in and out. It was comforting in a strange and simple way. My own breathing calmed. Of the fifty or so people that made contact with me in any given day, she was the only one who wasn't trying to change me.

One night she reached out and put her hand on the top of my shoulder. I'm not usually comfortable with casual touch, but her hand felt so natural being there. It happened to be one of the few places in my body that didn't hurt. I could have sworn she was saying two words with each breath, one on the inhale, one on the exhale: ‘As... Is... As... Is...’

On her next visit, she looked at me. No evaluation, no trying to figure me out. She just looked and saw me. Then she said simply, ‘You're more than the sickness in that body.’ I was pretty doped up, so I wasn't sure I understood her; but my mind was just too thick to ask questions.

I kept mumbling those words to myself throughout the following day, "I'm more than the sickness in this body. I'm more than the suffering in this body." I remember her voice clearly. It was rich, deep, full, like maple syrup in the spring...”

I’ve been thinking about that word, “comfort,” ever since. It’s built from the Latin word fortis, which means “strong.” To comfort others is, literally, to make them strong. It is to build a fort around them, so they may withstand whatever threat may come.

It’s what that nameless Jamaican cleaner did for the woman telling the story. It’s significant to me that she was the only one who came into that hospital room without a specific, healing task to perform (at least, as “healing” is typically defined by the medical professions). Yet, this woman - an angel, really - had a way of healing by her very presence.

We’ve pretty much lost that sense of the word, in our culture. “Comfortable” has degenerated into “comfy” – as in a comfy chair. When we speak of “creature comforts,” we usually mean something that makes us softer, rather than stronger.

It calls to mind these famous words of the prophet Isaiah. They mark a continental divide in that biblical book, as the prophet changes from confronting a sinful people to comforting an exiled people:

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
(Isaiah 40:1)

“Comfort” calls to mind, also, an old Fanny Crosby gospel hymn – one I haven’t thought of for a very long time – “All the Way My Savior Leads Me”:

“All the way my Savior leads me –
What Have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who through life has been my guide?

Heavenly peace, divinest comfort,
Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well.”

This is the sort of comfort that goes far beyond simply saying “There, there” to a crying child. “Heavenly peace, divinest comfort” gives people of faith the strength to go on.

Friday, April 18, 2008

April 18, 2008 - Cancer and Sin

“Cancer” and “sin” are two words that truly don’t belong together – yet, how easy it is to pair them up anyway!

There’s a part of us that wants to assign blame for cancer. What’s the first question many of us ask, when we hear of someone diagnosed with lung cancer? “Did she smoke?” As if that makes a difference. Somehow, a non-smoker with lung cancer belongs to a different order, in our minds, than a smoker struggling with the same disease. Aren’t both worthy of our compassionate concern, as they sit side by side in the oncologist’s waiting room?

It’s more comforting, somehow, to hear of a smoker who gets lung cancer, than a non-smoker who does. It feeds our craving to see the universe as a fundamentally fair place.

Relatively few cancers have a clear lifestyle- or behavior-related cause. Sure, there are all sorts of theories out there about environmental causes of various cancers, but only a few (smoking for lung cancer, asbestos exposure for mesothelioma, sun exposure for melanoma, sexual promiscuity for some cervical cancers) are established beyond doubt. To say “So-and-so got cancer because _____” is appealing, for it allows us to scratch another cancer off the lengthy list of those that simply are – scourges that descend upon a human life without warning and without apparent cause.

Those cancers – like the non-Hodgkin lymphoma I have – are truly scary. They seem so random.

Some people, having exhausted the possible environmental or lifestyle causes, move on to theology. They want to view cancer as God’s punishment for sin.

I’ve been reading Dancing in Limbo: Making Sense of Life After Cancer, by Glenna Halvorson-Boyd and Lisa K. Hunter (Jossey-Bass, 1995). I’m not exactly living a life after cancer, myself, but there are some aspects of my extended, asymptomatic watch-and-wait existence that are similar to life after cancer. I’m struggling, these days, with survivorship issues, which is why I picked up this book. Anyway, here’s a perceptive passage from it, about how common it is to view cancer as God’s punishment:

“Although the notion that cancer is a punishment for our sins may remain unconscious or unspoken, it appears to be present in a surprising number of cancer patients and their family members. A recent study of Canadian children with cancer and their parents by David Bearison and his colleagues revealed that half of the adults blamed themselves for their child's cancer. (Only 20 percent of the children practiced self-blame.) What the parents blamed themselves for directly was a sin. They actually believed that their use of illicit drugs or their adultery had caused the child's cancer. The parents' reasoning defied medical science but reflected their belief that sin will be punished.

For many of us, the idea of cancer as a direct punishment for our sins is too antiscientific to believe. However, if we examine the causal theories we create, we may find sin lurking just below the surface of our reasoning. For example, women who are sexually active at an early age and have many sexual partners are, in fact, at higher risk for cervical cancer. Disentangling the “sin” (of “promiscuity”) from the science (of statistical risk) in cervical cancer is difficult at best. Even if the form of cancer that we have does not appear directly linked to behavior that we feel guilty or ashamed about, we may, like the Canadian parents, nevertheless imagine it to be a retribution for our sins.”
(Dancing in Limbo, p. 43.)

Why do so many of us practice such faulty logic, wanting to assign blame where none is deserved? It’s because there’s something that scares us even more than sin and retribution: the thought that, as Jesus teaches, God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Which is a scarier universe to live in: one ruled by a petty, vindictive God who’s quick to smite sinners for their transgressions, or one in which God allows two-year-olds to die of brain tumors for no apparent reason?

Halvorson-Boyd and Hunter boil it down to a twisted little syllogism: “Our primitive sense of justice is ruled by a cruel logic: if we want to believe that we will get what we deserve, then we must deserve what we get” (p. 44).

And so, many of us cancer survivors wallow in self-blame. I’ve had a few moments in the past few years when I’ve wondered what I might have done to so anger God, but – I’m happy to say – that hasn’t been a major theme for me. After nearly 25 years in ministry, I’ve heard the “Why me?” question so often, from saints and sinners alike, that I really don’t believe illness is God’s punishment. In those awful months just before and after my diagnosis, I did feel considerable anger over my plight, but I wasn’t much inclined to direct my anger at God. I was more inclined to say, “Life is unfair” than “God is unfair.”

Bottom line? None of us deserves to have cancer.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

April 17, 2008 - Stayin' Alive

OK, this one's just for fun. Take a look at this YouTube video. It's from a new documentary film, Young@Heart, about a filmmaker who decides to spend 7 weeks with a group of retired folk who love to sing, and who are open to musical choices that are a bit off the beaten track for their age group, according to conventional wisdom.

Stayin' alive... it's what we're all trying to do.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

April 16, 2008 - More on the Kanzius Machine

On November 6, 2007, I wrote about an inventor named John Kanzius, who has invented a machine he thinks will be able to cure many kinds of cancers. His machine uses radio waves to heat up metal nanoparticles that have been injected into a patient’s body, and chemically targeted to attach themselves to cancer cells.

This past Sunday, CBS News’ 60 Minutes show highlighted Kanzius’ work. The segment told how well-respected researchers at two major cancer centers are currently running experiments to see if there’s anything to it. So far, they’re feeling encouraged.

It seems incredible that a retired guy tinkering in his garage could come up with a cure for cancer, but stranger things have happened in the world of inventions.

In some ways, Kanzius’ idea is similar to the radioimmunotherapy drugs Bexxar and Zevalin – only, instead of using radioactive particles bonded to a targeting agent like the monoclonal antibody rituximab, it would use non-radioactive particles of ordinary metal, then let radio waves heat those particles, cooking the malignant cells to death from within.

It all depends on the delivery system: getting those microscopic particles of metal to burrow into the cancer cells. Rituximab can probably do it – which could be good news for blood cancer patients.

It’s an intriguing idea, although still not ready for prime time. CLICK HERE for the 60 Minutes segment.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

April 15, 2008 - The Numbers Game

Things are looking up for people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma – if the statistics are any guide.

A news article from about a month ago reports on a German study of survival rates of people with NHL, based on U.S. statistics kept by the National Cancer Institute:

“Two-thirds of patients diagnosed between 2002 and 2004 will survive at least five years, compared to half of patients diagnosed between 1990 and 1992, according to the study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Ten-year survival rates were projected to rise to 56 percent in patients diagnosed from 2002 to 2004, up from 39 percent in 1990-1992, the researchers found.”

The researchers also found that, the younger you are, the more likely you are to be on the survivor side of the equation (no surprise, there).

What accounts for the improvement? Two things, say the researchers. The first is the impact of rituximab (trade name: Rituxan), the monoclonal antibody therapy I received along with my chemotherapy. While Rituxan doesn’t work on all non-Hodgkin lymphomas (only those with the CD-20 protein on the surface of affected cells), it is effective against the B-cell lymphoma I have.

The second factor is improvements in treating patients who have HIV-AIDS. Lymphoma is a frequent secondary complication of HIV. If fewer people in the general population are suffering from out-of-control AIDS, then that means a smaller percentage of today's lymphoma patients have previously been weakened by that disease – which means the overall, average survivability of lymphoma goes up. That has no bearing on my situation, of course, but it does affect the overall numbers.

So, what should I make of these statistics? It’s always dicey for us cancer patients to look at our own disease through the prism of statistics. The numbers can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (That’s why some oncologists are reluctant to give a direct, statistical answer to the question, “Give it to me straight, Doc, how long have I got?”).

But even so, the statistics seem to be calling my name. I feel the temptation to regard these numbers as a sort of road map for the rest of my life. Let’s see... I was diagnosed in 2005, at age 49 – just one year later than the group that’s the subject of the study. If 10-year survival rates are projected to rise to 56 percent for patients diagnosed between 2002 and 2004, then that ought to mean people diagnosed in my year will do at least as well, if not a little better. From the glass-is-half-full standpoint, that means I share the bounty.

On the other hand – from the glass-is- half-empty standpoint – that means my chances of living into my sixties are just a little better than a coin-flip. No wonder I can’t get life insurance!

Of course, these numbers include not only lymphomas that are treatable with Rituxan, but also those that aren’t. That – along with my relative youth – gives me a better-than-even chance of getting into the right 50%, the group that wins the coin toss.

Statistics aren’t a road map, of course. We can’t plan our lives by them. If we try, we’ll like as not end up in a ditch.

You’ll understand, though – won’t you – if I take these numbers as a reason to feel just a little encouraged?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

April 12, 2008 - The Dance Goes On

This morning, I conduct a funeral for someone I’ve never met.

It’s not that unusual an occurrence, in parish ministry. From time to time, one of the local funeral directors calls me, and asks if I’m free to conduct a service in the funeral home. Usually, it’s a case of the deceased having no current church membership. Often, there’s some tenuous history of church involvement – sometimes Presbyterian, other times something else.

The funeral directors know I generally say yes to such requests. I consider it an important part of the church’s ministry to the larger community.

Kay, whose funeral this is, had some connection with a Lutheran church in a nearby town, but the pastor had another commitment today. Rather than postponing the service, the family decided to let the funeral director find a minister. That’s how I got the call.

Yesterday, when I went over to the funeral home to meet with Kay’s daughter, I learned that Kay loved ballroom dancing. I also saw a snippet of video, of her dancing with her husband. This wasn’t your garden-variety, wedding-reception stuff. I’m talking “Dancing with the Stars,” Fred-and-Ginger elegance – ball gowns, tuxedos, the works. The woman I saw in those brief moments on the screen fairly soared across the dance floor, moving with joy and grace. She looked like she was having the time of her life.

Kay’s daughter told me of a woman who’d known a lot of disappointment in her life, with a couple of failed marriages in her past. She’d finally found happiness with her third husband – ironically, just about the time she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. Eight years of treatments later, it was all over. She was only in her 60s when she died – still young, by today’s standards. It hardly seems fair.

In planning the service, I decided to depart from the old-standby scripture readings. There’s nothing wrong with them, but for today I felt we needed something different. So, I went on a hunt for Bible passages dealing with dance. I found more than I’d expected.

Lamentations 5:14-15 tells of how hard it is to dance when you’ve had a devastating loss – in this case, the fall of your country to foreign invaders:

“The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.”

The poetry of Lamentations is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah – and, if that’s true, it’s remarkable how much his tune has changed in his better-known book, the prophetic book that bears his name, as he speaks for the Lord:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers....

Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

(Jeremiah 31:3b-4, 10-13)

“Our dancing has been turned to mourning,” says Lamentations. Now, the Lord says through Jeremiah, “I will turn their mourning into joy.” Clearly, this passage is all about God providing, one day, changed circumstances – circumstances propitious for the dance.

Psalm 30:5 provides a similar assurance that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” The psalmist then goes on to declare:

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever."

(Psalm 30:9-12)

What sort of dance is this? Not a rock dance, and not ballroom dancing, either, but probably something more like the circle dances of many near eastern and Mediterranean folk-dance traditions. They’re the sort of dances in which everyone participates, everyone finds a place. Eventually, the circle moves as one, becoming like a single dancer.

I tell the people, then, a story from the Hasidic Jewish tradition, about a famous rabbi who had been asked to come to a particular village to share his teachings. The village was looking forward to his arrival with great anticipation. Each person considered carefully what question to ask the holy man.

When the rabbi finally arrived, they ushered him into a large room, but he didn’t do what they expected. He walked silently around the room, softly humming a Hasidic tune. Before long, everyone found themselves humming along with the music and swaying to the rhythm. Before long, the whole community had formed up into circles, dancing ecstatically. They felt the presence of God in their midst as never before.

The dancing went on late into the night. Finally, the rabbi put up his hand and brought the swirling motion to a stop. Slowly he walked around the room, looking into each person’s eyes and saying, “I trust that I have answered all your questions.”

Sometimes there just aren’t the words. Sometimes the powers of logic are insufficient to the task. Sometimes the only thing to do is to put one foot in front of the other, in the time-honored patterns of the worship dance.

One of staples of the Christian folk-music tradition is Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance” (no, not the Michael Flatley Irish step-dancing extravaganza, but a lilting hymn that depicts Jesus’ life and ministry in terms of a dance). The refrain goes like this:

“Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.”

The song goes on to tell how Jesus danced through his teachings and healings, even right up to the cross. When he died, it seemed to his followers like the dance died with him. But then comes this verse:

“They cut me down and I leapt up high.
I am the life that'll never, never die.
I’ll live in you, if you live in me.
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.”

Sydney Carter himself died 4 years ago. The fame that accrued to “Lord of the Dance,” disproportionate to anything else he’d written, made him kind of a “one-hit wonder” – and he knew it. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that he chose to have these words carved into his tombstone, recalling his famous song:

“Coming and going by the dance, I see
That what I am not is a part of me.
Dancing is all that I can ever trust,
The dance is all I am, the rest is dust.
I will believe my bones and live by what
Will go on dancing when my bones are not.”

I tell the grief-stricken people in the funeral home that what we are about here, today, is reminding one another that the dance of life goes on - in this life as well as the next. Cancer cannot stop it. It surely can’t. In Christ, the dance goes on.

Robin, our church’s associate pastor, shared with me these words from an early Christian tomb inscription. I don’t have a source for it, but it sounds like the sort of thing those early Christians believed with all their hearts:

“No sorrowful tears, no beating of the breast
For a safe repose has taken me. I dance
Ring dances with the blessed saints
In the beautiful fields of the righteous.”

Yes, indeed. In places and in ways we can only imagine, the dance goes on.

Friday, April 04, 2008

April 4, 2008 - Lost in Transition

Here’s a video, “Lost in Transition,” profiling the broad range of issues faced by cancer survivors. It’s fairly long: just over 17 minutes, so get yourself a cup of coffee or do whatever you have to do, before you click on the arrow to view it...

What I like about the video is that it holds up the whole issue of survivorship, which is huge – and getting huger all the time, as more cancer patients live longer lives, thanks to advances in treatment. There once was a time, as the video points out, when a cancer diagnosis was considered a death sentence. Now, there are tens of millions of cancer survivors walking around – and many of us have issues.

The problem becomes acute, for a good many of us, at the moment when treatment ends. Friends, family and co-workers seem to expect us to abruptly make the transition from fighting for our lives to business as usual.

That’s just not going to happen. Cancer is life-changing. Paradoxically, this deadly disease teaches us lessons about living that can’t be learned in too many other places. That’s a good thing – one of the few good things that come out of this tough experience.

Yet, there are a lot of bad things that emerge after cancer treatment, some of which continue long after the last dose of chemo or radiation. Some of us survivors face psychological issues. Others struggle with paying off medical bills, or with workplace difficulties. Still others have a vague sense that cancer has trained us for something, but we’re not sure what.

Although, as a rule, I shun the military metaphor for survivorship – like the “long battle with cancer” we read about in so many obituaries – I’m struck by what one woman says in the video. She says she feels like a soldier, returned home from the war: not quite knowing what to do with herself.

That’s kind of like where I am right now. Yes, my remission is over, which means I continue to go back for scans every 3 months. There’s still cancer in my body, even though there’s no sign I’ll need treatment any time soon. I’m not like those survivors in the video who are concerned they’re no longer getting any care from their doctors. I still make monthly pilgrimages to Atlantic Hematology/Oncology for my port flushes, and every three months I sit down for a little chat with Dr. Lerner. Those things keep me connected enough.

It’s hard, though, to take up life’s larger tasks and projects, because I’m never sure when a scan might reveal swollen lymph nodes large enough to treat, and the wild ride will begin all over again. Will it be months? Or years? Or never?

That’s my survivorship issue. Maybe I’m still “lost in transition” as well.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

April 2, 2008 - 3 out of 5 Doctors Surveyed Agree

“3 out of 5 doctors surveyed agree...” Sounds like an advertising pitch, doesn’t it? Wonder what miracle tonic is on sale?

It’s no advertising pitch. It’s a statistic from a recent news article, reporting that 59 percent of doctors in this country now favor legislation to implement a national health insurance plan. Only 32 percent are opposed.

That’s a significant change from the last time this question was asked, in 2002. Back then, the vote was 49 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed.

The article quotes Dr. Ronald Ackermann, who helped conduct the survey: “Across the board, more physicians feel that our fragmented and for-profit insurance system is obstructing good patient care, and a majority now support national insurance as the remedy.”

More and more of America’s doctors are witnessing the human wreckage of our broken health-care funding system. When insurance companies incessantly fight their policyholders over the fine print in their policies, and everyone wastes millions on unnecessary paperwork, there eventually comes to be a cost. It’s a cost not only in squandered dollars, but also in lost efficiency. The more medical professionals are preoccupied with insurance red tape, the less time they have for treating their patients. This translates into a heavy cost in terms of our nation’s health – which is why, I think, so many doctors have changed their position.

Vance Esler is an oncologist and blogger. In his April 1st post – illustrated with a picture of a white flag – he interprets the survey results as a surrender on the part of weary doctors, who just want to hang up on the unending phone calls with insurance companies’ managed-care officials and get back to doing what they feel called to do: care for their patients. In earlier posts on the subject, Vance has expressed skepticism that national health insurance will be good for the patients – although he sees it as inevitable. He’s especially skeptical about Medicare – should that end up being the form the national program will eventually take:

“I have been working with Medicare for 30 years. I can tell you that there is no fighting because there is no negotiation. The government's attitude is ‘take it or leave it.’ So we physicians will take the cut in pay, take more time off, and probably be a whole lot happier.

But as one who is at the age where I may become a health care consumer, I'm not so sure I will like it – for the same reason: There is no negotiation.”

That does sound ominous.

Is this a common complaint of doctors in the British, French and Canadian national health-care systems, I wonder? Do they envy their American colleagues their ability to pull on their John Wayne Stetsons, swagger up to the insurance-company storekeeps, and demand what they want for their patients? I have a sense that other nations’ government health-care bureaucracies are less intractable than Medicare – or perhaps, simply better-funded. (They also tax their people at higher levels, which is where the better funding comes from.) Vance is right – these are issues that deserve careful attention.

I say of all political candidates seeking national office – whether the White House or Capitol Hill – if they have ears, let them hear. When even the doctors are starting to favor national health insurance, it’s clear the situation has deteriorated so far that something has to be done. There will be big rewards at the polls for any national leader with the guts to stand up to Big Insurance and do what’s best for ordinary citizens.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

April 1, 2008 - The Center Does Hold

In Wendy Harpham’s book, Happiness in a Storm, she recalls a time when faith made a profound difference in her life. Wendy explains how she grew up with a strong appreciation of her religious tradition (Judaism). As a young adult, she – like so many others, of various religious traditions – put her active practice of faith on the back burner for a time. Then, along came lymphoma:

“During the weeks after my cancer diagnosis, I became preoccupied with existential questions. I had to know if I believed in God and, if so, if God could hear me. My rabbi came to my home regularly to pray and study with me. Over the next few years of cancer recurrences and various treatments, mystical experiences touched my soul and nourished my trust in a universal order beyond my farthest-stretched imagination.

My spiritual life took a dramatic turn one sizzling Texas day in mid-June of 1992 when I was strapped onto an icy-cold table in a chilly room, my head held motionless by a custom-made plastic mesh mask and the rest of me immobilized by fear – fear of imminent radiation therapy, fear of my lymphoma, and fear of pain and death. The technician shut the heavy lead door, leaving me the only living creature in the room. The machine’s light focused on my neck and chest, and a buzz sounded. Without realizing what I was doing, I started chanting in my head the familiar Hebrew words of the ancient central prayer of Judaism. The words of the Shema were rote, but the prayerfulness behind them was foreign and emanated from an unfamiliar part of me. I believe it came from my soul. What struck me was not the newfound spirituality of my fervent praying but that I felt heard. Mine was the only heartbeat in that radiation suite, but I was not alone. With all earthly distractions silenced, I experienced an indescribable sense of spiritual company in my physical aloneness. Once introduced to this awareness, I’ve been able to tap into it ever since. It brings me peace and strength whenever needed. Like Job, I don’t know if I connected with God in that radiation suite, not the way I know if I’m hungry or I know that two plus two equals four. I have faith, and it’s a faith that has made my life happier.”

– Wendy Schlessel Harpham, M.D., Happiness in a Storm: Facing Illness and Embracing Life as a Healthy Survivor (Norton, 2005), pp. 335-336.

(Thanks, Wendy, for sharing so forthrightly and so personally.)

I found much the same thing, as the reality of my cancer diagnosis sank in. As a preacher, I’d been teaching faith for many years, but there had always been certain aspects of the message I’d passed along secondhand. It’s hard to do otherwise, when you begin your ministry in your 20s. Much of what we preachers share from the pulpit is not our wisdom, anyway, but the wisdom of the church. We read, we talk to other people, we listen – and from these insights we distill what truth we can find. From such derived truths we construct many – if not most – of our sermons. Firsthand testimony is always the most compelling, but secondhand will do in a pinch: after all, it’s still testimony.

For me, that’s changing. Like Wendy, I’ve found that, the longer I traverse the high, windswept plain of cancer survivorship, the more I realize I’m not alone. It’s never been a burning-bush, nor a voice-from-a-whirlwind experience, but something more akin to the “sound of sheer silence” the prophet Elijah experienced:

“He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Biblical scholars have long debated the proper translation of that Hebrew phrase. In the New Revised Standard Version, it’s “a sound of sheer silence.” Earlier Bible versions go with “a still, small voice” – but, no one’s entirely happy with that translation, either. In her account, Wendy says simply, “Mine was the only heartbeat in that radiation suite, but I was not alone.” Her version is as good as any, I suppose.

I remember lying on my side on an examining-table in Dr. Lerner’s office, waiting for him to punch through my pelvis with a sharp, metal instrument and extract a sample of bone marrow. I was feeling scared at the prospect. I remember consciously centering my heart and soul on some far-off place. In that place, I knew I was not alone. I knew, then, the sound of sheer silence would get me through whatever pain might come (which, thankfully, wasn’t so bad, because Dr. Lerner is so adept at bone-marrow biopsies).

I’ve learned to practice that kind of centering on numerous occasions since, as I’ve dealt with other pains and discomforts that accompany cancer treatment. In recent days, I’ve been living through post-operative pain resulting from my hernia surgery, and that too has been more manageable than I’d guessed.

I realize that, in the cancer world, there are far more serious pains, far more grueling challenges than those I’ve had to undergo. Each fresh obstacle presents its own level of difficulty. Yet, I’m coming to realize this same principle holds true, at every level. God is right there with us. The sound of sheer silence speaks. Together we travel, one step at a time.

Isaiah puts it another way:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.”

– Isaiah 43:2

It’s a combination of spiritual gift and learned response. That’s the only way I can describe it. And what is it we learn? In one of his most famous poems, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats gives us a frightening image of chaos. He’s thinking, no doubt, of the collapse of civilization, but his words also evoke a more personal terror:

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned...”

Finding God in the midst of a personal struggle with illness, or some other crisis, leads me to realize that, yes, the center does hold, after all.