Nothing can prepare you for what lies ahead.
You lose control of your life so recently given to you as you emerged out of the awkward teenage years and embarked on Project Adult. Cancer demands you seek help, return home and rely on others. Your appearance will change as hair falls out and your precious, beautiful body is handed over for examination and tests. Others speak the language of blood count and radio beam and you are reduced to a folder of notes.
There is real, physical pain and suffering. There is deep psychological pain of uncertainty and fear. There is social pain of isolation and loneliness. Life pre-cancer seems like a dream now.
Friends will let you down. Your presence makes people uncomfortable and ruins parties. You are part of a new community now, one that you have no interest in being a member of; the cancer community.
People will say the wrong thing like: “Fight hard, you will survive,” “Why did you get ill?” and: “But you’re so young.” You will want to tell them where to go.
Remission proffers up a host of problems you didn’t see coming. You probably couldn’t know what caused the cancer in the first place, so what do you do to stop it coming back? The treatment is now over, and the physical suffering is reduced, but the uncertainty is surprisingly hard to bear. Who are you now?
The Christian faith is based on a story of suffering; a scarred, resurrected body and a history of lament. It can meet the 21-year-old diagnosed with cancer and light the path ahead through the dark land of cancer and change it into a pilgrimage. You might not have chosen the journey that has been asked of you, but it provides with it the opportunity to learn of God and of yourself. As the South American bishop Pedro Casaldaliga wrote: “When you dance with death, you must dance well.”
Christ has gone before us, particularly in the suffering he faced on the cross. In pain, in isolation from friends and family, and in fear that he was abandoned by God, he cried out. This was Emmanuel – God is with us – if he feared, then it’s OK for us to be afraid. He promised to never abandon us, and that is true whether we feel it or not. So, in the cancer journey, there should be no expectation to feel one way or another. God is with you whether you feel it or not. Rage, lament, turn over those tables – your body has gone wrong, and it is OK to feel anger about it.
But remember, it is your body. As you dress in humiliating robes, as veins are assaulted by chemicals, as healthy tissues are seared by radiation or as you lie on the surgeon’s table, remember that it’s your body; your wonderful, extraordinary body that you do amazing things with, like that first kiss. No medical notes or procedure can take this away, so ask questions and demand answers – own the experience; this is your experience of cancer, not cancer’s experience of you.
Some friends will say just the right thing and listen to your stories of pain and of laughter. The hospital is full of human beings trying to use the best of medicine to heal and to soothe. Don’t be afraid to entertain angels unawares or to notice the person sitting in front of you. They may be Christ to you, or you to them – the mission potential to love and to receive love is always present.
And how to bear the aching uncertainty that cancer has ushered into your life? I don’t think there is a quick fix, not an honest one, anyway. But remember God could have raised Jesus from the dead as soon as he died. But Jesus had to wait three days for the resurrection: Holy Saturday is important for those in remission. Through it, we are shown that God has solidarity with those who wait, who have to live in the shadows of the threat of disease.
It was God who raised Christ after Holy Saturday – Jesus was passive in the events between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Those in the remission community wait too and pray that God will do the work, that God will show us the meaning in the waiting and the cancer journey. And when Christ was raised, it was with the scars of his suffering. The physical suffering mattered enough to God that his Son’s resurrected, redeemed body didn’t discount the journey he had been on. Cancer journeys can provide the meaning for those who survive them if we are brave enough to live them and not sweep the suffering under the carpet.
So when you get cancer at 21, there is potential that the suffering of the journey is not a means to an end, but a real place of discovery of both God and our identity in God. The faith of the resurrected, scarred Christ was transmitted in a story that changed the world. So too, when a cancer story is explored and told, it has the potential to heal not only the one that hears it but also the one who tells it.
When you get cancer at 21, feel free to roll out the cliché: your life will never be the same again. But if you can, entertain the possibility that you might learn more about yourself and God that you ever thought was possible.
If all this talking about your health has got you googling symptoms, have a read of 5 ways to prevent cancer, written by our doctor friend, Freddie Pimm.
Gillian has written a book about her cancer journey, which you can read here: A Pilgrim Companion, Gillian Straine (SPCK, January 2017).