Cancer has changed—is changing—me in, I imagine, the ways that a variety of life-limiting, life-diminishing, and life-threatening experiences change other people.
When, 3½ years ago, my oncologist confirmed that I have Multiple Myeloma (MM), I began a relationship with “Frank’” which is the name I gave this cancer. Since MM is presently incurable, I will be in this relationship for the rest of my life. I will either die at Frank’s hands or in his company.
Everyone who has MM has a somewhat different experience; there are multiple Multiple Myelomas. Since, for me, bone pain (sometimes intense) and fatigue (often extreme) are its main symptomatic manifestations, part of my calling now is to live—not merely to survive or exist—with chronic pain and unpredictable energy.
Cancer has made urgent some changes that were already stirring in my heart and spirit, and it has brought others that I couldn’t have anticipated: in my career, role, “place,” and self-understanding. Myriad troubles, traumas, diseases, and disasters have a destabilizing and disorienting impact on those whom they strike.
Lately, I’ve worried that I am letting “Frank” take up more space in my consciousness than he deserves. Because cancer and its treatment have gathered-up and come to represent many of the significant traumas of my life, it’s distressingly easy to allow them to exercise a controlling, misshaping, and distorting influence over me. I’m tempted to make an idol out of illness.
Maybe people with other hurts and losses faces a similar temptation. I can’t speak for them; but making a false god out of suffering and mortality is certainly a risk I run. Failure to avoid it would make fear stronger than love, brokenness more real than salvation, and death more powerful than abundant life.
When cancer dominates my field of vision, I rivet my attention to limitation rather than focus on possibility.
When Frank pesters me with the lingering effects of “chemobrain”—especially a mushy memory and an attenuated attention span—I lose track of the capacities I still have for imagination, reflection, and discernment.
When I give cancer too much authority, I cling to regret over what I no longer possess rather than practice faithful and creative stewardship of what remains.
Cancer is part of my self-description, but it doesn’t have to be part of my self-definition.”
Cancer patient” is one of many roles I play; it’s not an identity I inhabit.
As others put it, I have cancer, but cancer does not have me.
Signs of idolatry—of putting something proximate in the place of the ultimate and of allowing fear to displace Love—are ingratitude and narcissism.
I don’t want to let trauma wrap me up in myself, to enclose me in my own “stuff,” and to desensitize me to the struggles and hopes of other people.
And, I don’t want to overlook wonder and beauty, to live with a sense of scarcity and anxiety, and to lose the joy of giving thanks for the gifts of life and the gift of life itself.
We become like the gods—the powerful personal realities—we serve. To live in, for, by, and with Love is to become love.
For me, Love has a name. To say the obvious: it’s not “Frank.” To say what I trust: Love’s name is “Jesus.”