Thoughts on Living with Cancer
“Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Psalm 34:106
We sing the verse above at the service of the Artoklasia – five loaves. It is a source of great comfort and strength. Then St. John of Damascus writes in the funeral service of the Holy Orthodox Church, “What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief?” Sometimes the grief is so overwhelming that we can hardly taste the sweetness. Our life on earth can be a constant struggle between faith and fear: faith that God conquers all evil, and fear of buckling under the tyranny of illness, with all the misery it brings. From the depth of our hearts we cry to the Lord to help us through this dark valley, to bring us to a safe port.
Our Lord prayed to the Father on His way to crucifixion that the cup of death might pass from Him, but He added, “Let it be your will.” We find ourselves on the same path when it comes to facing the pain either of enduring cancer or of watching someone we love go through it. The results of the medical exam, the blood work, the CAT scan, the MRI and the biopsy all came back positive: “You have cancer,” the doctor said. After this heavy news comes the rocky road of chemo and radiation.
I don’t know much about chemo, but I know that it’s supposed to kill the cancer cells and some good ones. We could deal with the hair loss, but we pray that we never experience loss of faith, patience or hope, because that is much worse than having cancer. “Hear my cry, O Lord, listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to You, I call as my heart grows faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. You have been my refuge, a strong tower against my foe. I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge under the shadow of your wings” (Psalms 61).
Our foe right now is this dreadful disease. Finding the strength to fight it is a miracle by itself, because our inner strength comes from above, from Thee, O Father of lights. “The Lord is near to all those who call on Him in faith” (Psalm 45:18). Our entire life is based on our faith that He will be with us and grant us peace, especially when we need Him in the darkest hours of our lives.
In Matthew 6 we read, “Your father knows what you need before you ask Him. So do not worry…. Seek first His kingdom and righteousness, and all else shall be added unto you.”
What the chemicals do inside the body differs from one person to the next, but we have to prepare for the worst and pray for the best.
Everyone in the church is praying; the name is mentioned at the altar; people send cards and call, giving best wishes. All these are manifestations of love, care and concern. This is one of the ways God tells us that He loves us. When the parish ladies knock at the door bringing many meals, we cannot but look up and say, “Thank you, God, for the love You surround us with.”
Which one of us likes to watch a beloved one endure pain? No one. As God knows what we are praying for before we ask, He gives us and the sick person a source of peace, a trust that things will be OK.
“How do you feel,” we ask. She answers: “Thank God, fine,” even when she is in pain. Her love for those around her gives an atmosphere of comfort and tranquility. She has an ever-present smile on her face, a source of comfort to us.
Like Simon, told to help the Lord to carry His cross, we felt obligated and motivated by the love that binds us to see how we could help, and the answer came: “Thank you, I am fine, God is with me.”
We finished the first round of chemo and radiation. We rejoiced and thanked God that things seemed to be fine and the hair started to come back.
A year later the same cancer showed up somewhere else in the body, even on some major organs. We started getting ready for another battle with this menace of a disease.
Our Lord said: “Do not be afraid, little flock...” Therefore we pray without fear. And in Romans 8, St. Paul says: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.”
One thing we know for sure, and that is that we love God. He is the healer of our souls and bodies. Let it be His will.
We go with her to the hospital for chemo sessions and, instead of being comforted, she is the one who is comforting. God must be working along with the chemo.
At times, we get distressed, so we pick up our spirits and move along, allowing God to share in the burden. “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is His grace that transforms our weakness to His strength. This is how we wake up every morning with thanksgiving in our hearts and on our lips, because, had it not been for His assistance, our weakness would pull us down into hopelessness.
Every one of us has his or her own tolerance for pain and suffering. Some can handle it better than others. When suffering from an illness, one prays that God may help by eliminating the pain, because by ourselves we are powerless and hopeless.
If we look at the life of the saints and how much they had to suffer for the love of Christ, one wonders how much inner strength they had. They were not supermen, but ordinary people like us, with an extra weapon: their faith in and love for Christ brought Christ closer to them, so that they were able to endure.
A cancer patient who is a believer could have Christ’s strength as his own in fighting the tyranny of the illness and the pain of being ill. If God allows illnesses to torment us, does He or does He not give us the strength to fight? Naturally He does, through prayer, Holy Communion and the intercessions of the whole community.
As annoying as pain is, it serves as a pointer to where the problem is in the human body. It tells the doctor where to look for sources of disorder in the bodily system. We don’t like pain, but it has a function.
It is one thing to see the ill person suffer and another to suffer over the suffering person. When a mother sees her child with fever, she cannot rest until the child is better. The cancer patient is seldom alone in pain and suffering. Family members share in the struggle as well, because of love. God heals through many ways: the doctor’s touch, the nurse’s care, and the love provided by family, friends and church. All these are the presence of God in the life of the patient.
If and when we know anyone with cancer in our church, let us show that when one member of the body hurts, the whole body hurts. Whatever we can do at the time, we should do it. If a visit is not possible, then a phone call, a postcard, or helping out with a meal will be much appreciated. Most of all, pray for the healing of that person, whether the cancer is at stage five or stage one. A sick person should know that he or she is surrounded by believers in a merciful God who cares.
In Colossians 3 we read: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” When that happens nothing can frighten us or sadden our hearts. We should not worry where the cancer is, but rather remember that God is in control. Whether the disease wins or loses, we know that our love for Christ has been unshaken.
I am not afraid to surrender to a moment of weakness through trembling and tears. Crying is at times therapeutic, but it should not be devastating. Talking to friends and seeking comfort from them is a great thing.
We may feel many things, but we should never feel that the disease is a punishment for something we did wrong. God is loving and merciful. He suffers with us and leads us through the valley of pain. We do not need to add the pain of guilt to the pain of the disease. Our Lord is our anchor. In Him we find stability and tranquility. For every void the disease creates, God fills with His love.
“It is almost midnight; we need to go to the emergency room. We cannot stop the pain or the vomiting, there is nothing else we can do.” So said one of the children. Then the doctor’s office prescribed medication over the phone to be picked up at the all-night pharmacy. That night went by peacefully. We spent hours at infusion centers talking, reading, praying, watching television and hoping the bag would finish dripping.
The whole family grew up in the Church, anchored in the Church’s life and the sacraments. It is at times like these that our faith in Christ kicks in. It is like the time the disciples were in the boat, tossed about by the wind, and they were afraid. We were afraid so much that we would give each other comfort. But the most amazing thing did not come from any of us, but from the person with the cancer. She would comfort us with words that were not her own. I believe God spoke through her to make us feel better. It was then that we felt that the Lord came walking on the water toward our boat to calm the wind of fear and give us comfort....
Now as we wait to start another round of chemo and God gives the strength to put up with it without too much discomfort, we realize that He is at work once again. Many doctors tell their patients to have faith and see how God works. “If the spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He will give life to your mortal body (which is stricken by sickness) through His Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 6:11). As we stand facing deadly diseases throughout our lives we are strengthened and comforted by what our Lord says in Jeremiah 31:3: “I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have drawn you with loving-kindness.”
Very Rev. Elias Bitar is the Pastor of St. George Church in Little Falls, New Jersey and the Vicar General of our Archdiocese.