A colleague recently told me that if she got cancer, she would rail at God: “Why me, Lord, why me?” She said my attitude toward breast cancer was an inspiration. While being considered inspirational was flattering, it was also off-base. Blaming God gets you nowhere and it makes you miserable on the way.
I love solving problems, so I saw my cancer as the biggest challenge I have ever faced and I was determined it wasn’t going to beat me. Plus, I think trying to change the course of divine decisions is a bit arrogant, not to mention self-defeating. I don’t think God would listen to my whining and say, “Oh, you have a good point there, Pat. Never mind. Cancel that cancer. My mistake.”
I told my husband that, of all the illnesses I thought I might get, I had never thought I would get breast cancer. “What did you think you would get?” he asked. I had to think a while. “Nothing,” I finally answered.
I suspect that I am normal in that respect, that most of us expect the other guy to get the nasty illness. But once cancer decided to take up residence in my breast, I decided to make it clear that it was unwelcome, that I planned to replace it with healthy tissue and, in the process, get on with a meaningful life.
Before my diagnosis, I thought I knew how to pray. This whole experience changed that and made my prayers more thoughtful and introspective and less demanding. Oddly enough, by moving outside of myself, my chats with God now suit my earthly needs better than before. And I have to believe they also reach heaven’s ears more effectively.
Instead of praying for God to cure me, I began to pray for the tools to help cure myself. I figured if I were God I would get tired of people complaining and asking me to solve things. I would appreciate somebody who was willing to do the work herself, but who just wanted to make sure she had the proper equipment.
Plus, I thought that if I gave into the negatives, I would be acknowledging that the cancer was stronger than me. I was not about to give it that advantage. So I prayed for the strength to make the right decisions on my treatment, the knowledge to take care of my health beyond medical intervention, the courage to trust others, the wisdom to live with whatever my illness brought.
On the morning before my third chemo treatment, I awoke with a palpable sense of wellbeing, as though I had just been kissed by an angel or touched by the hand of God. Or my mother, who had died in 1993. I felt surrounded by love and warmth. I smiled. I was softened and strengthened at the same time, ready to fight, but calmly, meditatively, wisely, thoughtfully. I knew my toolbox had been delivered. I had the tools I needed to heal. Whenever I get the least bit discouraged, I remember that moment and am once again revived.
After that, I began to inexplicably awake with a smile. My response: “Thank you, God, for another beautiful day.” This continued throughout treatment and sometimes it was a conscious act, but most often it just happened without thought.
Prayer was the box that held my healing gear and provided the texture and structure of my life through treatment. The most essential tool was the support of those around me whose love became even that much more obvious and strong. I have been blessed with a devoted husband and family who reminded me in words and acts that they loved me. My sister Phyllis mailed us her juicing machine and my husband began making me fresh vegetable juice daily, high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals—something he still does every day. My kids bought me books: Ellen got me the breast book that became my bible and Josh bought me a wonderful book of cartoons that made me laugh. Both took a week off to fly home to Iowa from the East Coast to help care for me. My brother John remembered how, during Lent, he and I used to sneak to the store to buy Hostess Cupcakes and sit on the curb gorging ourselves on them; he brought me a 12-pack of the goodies, which jump-started my sagging appetite and reminded me of a shared life of love. My sister Kathleen came from Memphis and brought me an inspirational book, plus her inimitable gift of laughter.
And people had enough faith in me to treat me normally, not to coddle me. When I told my brother Ed I was sorry we could not go to Colorado and help build a fence on mountain land we share, he said, “Oh, you wouldn’t have been much help anyway,” in just the way he would have treated me had I not been his Sister with Cancer. He then built our part of the fence himself, so I now have a thousand feet of wood and wire that was built with a good amount of muscle and even more love.
John once asked how I was handling the illness. I told him I was in generally good spirits, but that I had recently been shopping and decided not to buy any clothes because I might not be around to wear them, a truly unusual thought, but one that does still pop into my head when I am not looking. I figure I have the right to be pitiful on occasion. My brother didn’t give into my pathos. “Yeah,” he said. “Better not buy any green bananas, either.” My husband once called my illness “Pat’s little diversion,” showing his own attitude—this was a short-term setback and we would get through it.
My friends, colleagues, students, and the alums who knew of my illness sent cards and flowers, and stopped by to visit, bringing healthy goodies as well as extravagances—coffee mocha, energy smoothies, and fresh fruit. My favorite cards were those that did not allow we to wallow, but told me to kick this thing. One even came with a cutout boot to kick with.
Chemotherapy and radiation, while nobody’s choice of a fun time, were not as difficult as I thought they might be, largely because I was equipped to handle them. My husband made sure I continued to walk two miles a day, except for the day after chemo when I was too weak and nauseated. I walked around the lake by our house throughout the summer with a mixed assortment of children and siblings and I ate well and rested.
I felt completely cherished, safe, and at peace. And I thrived.
My tumor was small and had not spread, so my prognosis is quite good. It was aggressive, though, which is why I needed chemo. Like other cancer patients, I live with the knowledge that the disease can return anytime. Everybody dies of something eventually, though, and we all have challenges and trials, so if this is mine, I will live with it, but my spirit has been strengthened and I feel up to whatever fight I have ahead of me.
Eventually, as I returned to work and the stress and demands of my job as a professor and university administrator, the morning smiles disappeared and I did not even notice. Treatment was over, I was a busy woman, and all that cancer stuff was behind me, so I awoke with a “to do” list and the sense that I was already late for something. I had shut the toolbox and moved on.
Then, in a conversation with a friend who was also dealing with cancer, I mentioned how my smile-a-day had given me strength. That made me realize I hadn’t awakened with a smile in months. It was no longer an automatic gesture, but I missed it. It was time for human intervention. I started to make myself smile upon awakening, no matter what—rain, sleet, snow, or a snoring husband— and follow the smile with, “Thank you, God, for another beautiful day.” And that gives the day a far better chance at beauty. Now, I have added, “Help me use it well.”
And now when I pray, I first offer a prayer of thanks for the tools I have always had but never appreciated fully—my health, that loving family, a mind that can keep me focused in the right direction, enough resources to take care of our temporal needs, and a strong body that I am trying to train to reject any recurrence of cancer.
My diagnosis of breast cancer was stunning, but it was the beginning of a deeper, more fulfilling life. My nightly prayers now include all the women in the world with breast cancer, that they be given the tools they need to combat the disease and live a life of meaning and wisdom.
And I pray that, occasionally, they awake to a smile.