By Damaris Christensen
Coping With Cancer
In the midst of turmoil, how do we keep on going?
By Damaris Christensen
Hope can hurt. It is the ache of new growth, the pain and joy of new beginnings, of stretching in places long constrained, of reaching for light from the darkness. The terrible thing about hope is that if we had what we hoped for, longed for, we would not need to hope—and yet it is hope that makes life worth living; it is hope that shapes our days, that keeps us moving, that gives us the lens through which we catch glimpses of grace and possibility, of a future that is both like and unlike the present.
I have rarely needed hope more than in the past year—and rarely has hope seemed so ephemeral, bursting into wild bloom one day and seeming lost in the depths of winter the next. Five years ago I felt called into ministry from my steady, stable career as a medical writer. I spent the last year, after graduating from seminary, working in Philadelphia as a chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania—an intense, busy, inner-city research hospital. I loved the work but found it exhausting, too, especially on top of a difficult transition to a new city far from family and friends.
But even as I struggled this year with my new job, personal frustrations, fatigue and bouts of illness, I found hope in the remarkable resilience I saw every day in the hospital. Simply, it is this: Somehow, most people find a way to move through incredibly difficult times; we manage to wake up each morning and go through the day. This, in and of itself, is a powerful statement in the midst of illness. Hope, it seems, can be more like courage than cheerfulness; it can be about accepting that happiness can be fleeting.
The questions, “What gives you hope or faith? What keeps you going?” are important because the uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis and treatment can be so overwhelming for everyone involved. Indeed, being sick—and dealing with cancer in particular—is about a lot more than physical well-being. Some people report feeling that their body, or life, or even God, has betrayed them. More times than I can count, people asked me, as the chaplain, a variant of, “What did I do to deserve this?”
After a cancer diagnosis—and the possibility of impending loss and perhaps death—everything of value and importance, including a person’s faith, may feel threatened, says Kava Schafer, one of my colleagues and the primary oncology chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Cancer treatment, like the disease itself, can be brutal. Even when treatment is going well, something can feel lost, she says. “The faith and hope piece [of coping with cancer] can become a moment-by-moment negotiation of what supports and strengthens.”
Near the end of my time as a chaplain at HUP, as the hospital is known, I attended a memorial service for cancer patients who had died during the previous year. Something about this service crystallized for me the enduring hope, even in grief, of people’s ability to endure. During this gathering, which is primarily funded by the hospital’s Board of Women Visitors, staff from the inpatient and outpatient clinics spoke about their experiences and read poems, while families were invited to come forward to leave tokens on poster boards. As the boards filled with photos, flowers, letters and even a pair of large black glasses, individuals came to the microphones to share stories about loved ones, their deaths, the staff, and living with loss. Hope sometimes seemed very near and sometimes incredibly distant.