This week, a very high profile young footballer announced that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer and would that day undergo surgery. There has been a wonderful outpouring of support for him, especially poignant in that he has so recently suffered the death of his father. These events have powerfully brought back to me the experience of receiving a cancer diagnosis and I thought to offer a few reflections on that experience, and how people can be helpful at such a time.
Many people say that to be told you have cancer is about the worst thing that can happen to you. The ‘C word’, as it is called, carries with it many fears and challenges us, perhaps no matter how old we are. It is a big shock. In my case, the surgeon told me after the biopsy that he was pretty sure I did not have prostate cancer, and yet just 30 hours later rang me to say that the pathology results came back saying I did. I was devastated—not least because the very next day I was to attend the funeral of an uncle who had died from that same condition. In my case, thankfully, the cancer was diagnosed early, it was small and contained, had not spread, and I have been free from cancer for 7 years now. In medical terms this is considered cured. I am very grateful.
First, I want to say how grateful I am that I live in a country where such diagnosis and treatment is available. It is something for which we should be continually grateful—and we need to protect these great gifts, and the wonderful people who make it all possible.
Next, I want to say how good it is that there is public recognition of the situation facing this young sportsman. His particular cancer might be the subject of many locker-room jokes, but the reality is (as he and others have acknowledged) this occurs in young men, and they need to be mindful of this possibility. You need to check. We need to talk about it. Men need to learn to talk about such things and support one another in going for checks, following through when there may be some symptoms, rather than laughing it off or ‘toughing it out’. Actually, that’s not tough at all.
Having said that we need to talk about it, though, I want to add that it is so important for friends and family to understand that at such a time we need to respect the person who has just received this diagnosis, and while they will want to talk about it to someone, they must retain their right to decide when and how. It is the same with a bereavement. When we have received such a shock, it is easy for others to ‘take over’ and decide that it is good for us to talk—and effectively this taking over, well intentioned as it is, further subjects us to someone else’s control. Bad enough that my body has delivered me this awful and confronting news, over which I have no control, making me feel helpless—now my friends are also pushing me to do something I may want to do, but am perhaps not yet ready to do. In that situation, please allow me the time I need, to go into my shell for a while, perhaps, to cry if I need to, alone, to rage and rail against this thing, and even to blurt all this out if I need to. Or just to do my job and go about the house trying to do ‘normal’ things for a while.
Then, too, it is worth reflecting on what we mean by a good outcome. In my case, I underwent surgery and soon was fit and well again, back to work. I am grateful for all that, except perhaps for one thing. From this distance, I wonder if it was all too quick. Maybe we can brush some things aside too quickly.
A cancer diagnosis confronts us with something we can almost completely ignore, in our modern and highly technological world. Actually, we are mortal. More than that, our life is vulnerable to many unexpected and unseen things. I remember a friend of mine who once tried to explain to small children in a majority world country that the water in this pool was in fact not safe for them to drink, or even swim in: in that water were tiny things they could not see, but which could kill them. In such places, as through most of the history of humankind, people live with death. That is, death is a part of life. Children die, babies die, mothers die, people die at work, or are injured and unable then to walk, or work to support themselves and their families. We are largely immune to these things, though of course some accidents occur. But nothing like it was in times past, or in other countries.
We are in fact mortal, but so easily live as if ‘it won’t happen to us’. We need to learn afresh to live with our mortality. I think if we did, we might be more grateful for all we have, already, and would perhaps spend so much less time and energy hankering for more. If we knew that in reality we have only a short time left in this life, we would stop all that and learn to enjoy what is around us: the love of family and friends, the good things we have and the beautiful place we inhabit, this earth. For sure, there are many things to improve on, to work towards. And yet in another sense we are already in the presence of the most wonderful realities, if we could but stop and enjoy them a little.
A cancer diagnosis can be the invitation to learn to live—even if it is only going to be for a very short time now. I do not for a minute diminish the anguish of those who face such a difficult prospect. Not at all. And I do not presume to speak for them.
Even so, this week as I recall the anniversary of my mother’s death, I remember the day I sat with her just after her diagnosis. She had suffered from an auto-immune disease for twenty years or so, but it was not that disease that ‘took her’ in the end. A cancer diagnosis and within four months she passed into her rest. One day, soon after diagnosis, I sat with her thinking that I should offer her some pastoral support and allow her to vent something of what she must be feeling about it all. I shall never forget her response to my careful, inviting question. She just looked at me and said: ‘Well, you know, I’ve trusted the Lord all these years, I’m not going to give up now.’ That was that. She had simply accepted life, and now the prospect of her death, as a gift from God, and she was peacefully resting in that trust. If only we could all live, and die, with such peace and hope!
Jesus said that we cannot by wishing and struggling make ourselves live a day longer, or gain any of the other things we yearn for: instead, he drew attention to the flowers and birds, which unselfconsciously live, and die, within God’s providence. (Matthew 6. 25 – 34) There’s enough to worry about, within our control, let alone stressing on things that are in fact already given to us.
I am glad to affirm the value, to my life, of a cancer diagnosis. I would not choose to go through it—and there is always the reality that our bodies continually produce cells that mutate, with the potential of metastisizing. In reality, we live with this prospect all the time.
But I am grateful, nonetheless.