The pathology report, dated 17 March 1994, is before me as I write. Stark words like “tumour” and “carcinoma” convinced me then that the message the symptoms suggested was real. In fact, I had high grade (grade 3 of 3) cancer.
With that report, my world changes, instantly. Long-term plans suddenly seem irrelevant. I want to see family, now; what if there are only months to luxuriate in the sunshine of their love? At best there will be months of treatment and years of frequent tests. My specialist suggests that survival for five years augurs well for a longer future.
My daily work as a chaplain offers the opportunity to journey with patients and their families facing serious illnesses, long-term interventions, desirable remissions–and deaths. During one especially-taxing week I am called to attend ten deaths, more of them from cancer than any other cause. Patients and families pour out their fears and hopes. They rejoice when medical science triumphs. Some face the end of life with fear and anger; others simply cherish each day of comparative wellness.
My therapy for the first-diagnosed form of cancer was highly successful; the five-year horizon has lengthened to nineteen years. Some of the side effects of the therapy were profound–as when a combination of two powerful drugs unexpectedly attacked my nervous system, resulting in diminished sleep for eighteen months.
War on a new front
Nine years after the first encounter, a quite different set of symptoms indicated another of the many forms of cancer was attacking a different part of my body. It was 2003, and by then the Internet had radically changed our world. Enormous volumes of new information were available at the press of a few computer keys. This reality heightens patients’ expectations and multiplies their options. The questions for me were legion: Is surgery the preferred choice? Is treatment best in Australia, or is it more likely to succeed overseas? If local specialists and therapeutic centres are chosen, which have the best track record?
After careful listening to several specialists, I unwillingly accepted that surgery was not an option in my case; instead, a combination of chemical weapons and radiation may win the war. I remain eternally grateful to a specialist who offered me aggressive therapy when at least some others seemed likely to refuse to make any such attempt. The treatment obviously bought me a hoped-for, five-year remission. But then the symptoms began to return, unmistakably. During the four years, helped by the generous subsidies available to its citizens from the Australian Government, many thousands of dollars have been invested to help my body fight its foe.
A few things I’ve learned
In the years that I’ve lived with cancer, I’ve learned several things that seem to be important. First of all, from the moment of initial diagnosis, I’ve cherished the unfailing understanding of family and friends. We cancer patients live on borrowed time, a reality that also deeply impacts those we love. They need to be kept informed; we are all helped by freedom to laugh together, to rejoice when the news is positive, and talk through the reports that are the opposite of our hopes.
My family and friends have always respected the essential boundaries I needed, but one problem has emerged. There are a host of alternative therapies that people are tempted to advocate with caring enthusiasm. I could never read all the articles, books and blogs recommended to me, or ingest all the miracle liquids or remarkable substances advertised as certain cures. One lives with a measure of guilt for roads not taken but, on the other hand, unthinking compliance would raise insuperable problems.
Second, I profoundly respect yet seriously question everything my medical team recommends. In number, these highly-skilled people compare well with my fingers, and they live on different continents. All of them have done their best, of that I am convinced. But in hindsight some of their advice was dangerous, perhaps deadly. A patient has a right to a second or even third opinion; if I had not exercised such rights, I wouldn’t be writing this article.
Next, a diagnosis of cancer includes a healthy element. Wordsworth had it right when he exclaimed, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” (William Wordsworth, 1807). To know we are living with cancer helps us focus upon the things in life that matter most.
Further, our society offers valuable help for the cancer patient’s journey. During the early stages of diagnosis and treatment, it is of enormous benefit to talk with others who have been on the same road for months or years. (Oh, I have many messages on my computer from a person I met as we undertook radiation therapy. Barrie is close to my age and although we had not met before, it has been helpful to compare notes as we travel through new and potentially daunting terrain.) I have not yet joined any of the available groups that offer group nurture for cancer patients, but the time may well come when I will.
Again, cancer in its many forms is a disease that strikes celebrities as well as the rest of us, indiscriminately. When a celebrity is attacked, that is news, bigtime. Think of Jane McGrath: young, beautiful, well-known as the wife of famous cricketer Glenn–and the loving mother of two children. Jane’s charitable foundation, memorialising the fight she lost with breast cancer, like the widely discussed struggle of broadcaster Alan Jones with prostate cancer, have helped to demythologise those forms of the disease. Think of the way Jones confronted the illness that takes the lives of some three thousand men in Australia each year. “I told them I didn’t do dying, that I just try to make the most of living,” he stated laconically.
The most enduring dimension of my learning is a fuller appreciation for the plain words of Scripture. Three thousand years ago a shepherd-poet wrote some of the best-known expressions of faith in God, including Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me: your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” God, the Ultimate Shepherd, is best known through the Incarnate Jesus who declared, “I am the bread of life,” and “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 6:35; 10:11). That quality of spiritual sustenance caps the wonderful support of family, friends and skilful medical personnel.
I often remember how one of my specialists, more than nine years ago, worked through the criteria that led her to offer me vigorous treatment when other specialists seemed likely to refuse all such interventions. Important to her was my overall state of fitness, including the fact that I was not overweight. Evidently she deemed the chances for the therapy to be successful depended a lot on a patient’s weight. All these years later my weight is a couple of kilos less than it was at the critical point of diagnosis. Almost seventy per cent of Australian men are overweight or obese, and my prescribed drugs make weight-gain particularly easy. I owe a lot to my wife and elder daughter for encouragement to stay slim, and their penchant for exercise. (My other daughter can be relied on to understand the journey of the mind. I rely on my son for his pragmatic buoyancy).
The human body profits from wise lifestyle choices. The same can be said for a positive state of mind. I cannot prove that a simple, lacto-ovo vegetarian diet that followed all my life until a couple of years ago, when I changed to a dairy-free diet, helps the fight against cancer. Nor can I prove that optimistic attitudes actually influence what is happening in the cells of our bodies. But the sense of wellness that one feels when one’s food choices are made intelligently and the essential joy that accompanies an upbeat attitude are well worth cultivating.
In my limited experience, a principal source of optimism is the essential message of Christianity. The Old Testament Scriptures assure us that we humans were created intentionally by a loving God. The biblical narrative proceeds with the message that, despite the tragedy of sin and the reality of suffering, we are invited to plan for a future where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4, NIV). I find significant challenge in the writings of the Apostle Paul that fill about a third of the New Testament; he suffered beyond my capacity to fully understand (see II Corinthians 11:21-29) but later in life he could write, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11).
The families of cancer patients who have asked me to conduct funeral services for their loved ones usually find particular comfort in Romans 8:31-39. Paul states in verse 38:
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Yes, cancer may be lethal for this life, but how limited it is in the face of twin realities–God’s love and eternity!
Arthur Patrick, drafted 22 June 2010, updated and posted 9 January 2013
Here are some further points to ponder:
“I enjoy convalescence. It is the part that makes illness worthwhile” (George Bernard Shaw, 1921).
“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick” (Susan Sontag, 1978).
 Alan Jones, “My Fight for Life,” The Australian Women’s Weekly,” March 2009, 118-121.