All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
One of the things I was really glad to have when I was diagnosed with cancer back in 2007, was my faith – the knowledge that the Lord was with me as part of my arsenal of tools to get me through the awful time I had to go through.
A diagnosis of cancer at any age and in any format is brutal. It’s unfair. It’s just horrible. For me a diagnosis of cancer at age 38 with such young children made me start to question what it’s all about. Is there a God? Where was God in all this? How could he allow this to happen? Why is my existence being threatened? Am I going to be around to see the kids grow up? How is Bryan my hubby going to cope – he forgets the kids’ dates of birth at times?
I was numb. I was in despair and I was grieving – grieving for the life I thought I was never going to get to live. There are times even now that I have moments or pockets of despair….and when I worry about not being around but that’s just a fact of living with an incurable cancer.
I was in shock for those first few minutes, hours and days after I received the diagnosis but I remember a slow and steady resolve building inside me that I was definitely going to fight the cancer head on and to deal with whatever it threw at me. I know that sounds like something from a Hollywood Film script but it is true. The resolve came from me being a very determined person (my husband would say stubborn) but I began to realise that while there is so much to do with cancer that you have no control over, there is a lot that you do.
- So I decided I would learn all I could about it.
- I decided I would do exactly what I was told by the specialists
- I decided to be stubborn in the face of cancer
- I decided there and then in the hospital that I was going to beat it
- I decided I would allow myself to cry if I wanted to
- I decided I would pray about it when I was able to
- I decided I would have to have FAITH …..
In the early days of my diagnosis a priest came to see me in hospital and he brought me a beautiful gift of a photo frame which had an empty space on one side and when you rotated the frame it had a piece of scripture from Corinthans:
“You can trust God not to be tried beyond your strength and with every trial he will give you a way out of it and the strength to bear it…..”
There are no words that I have come across since that best described how I felt about my faith in those first days and weeks after my diagnosis and even today I know that
I can trust God not to be tried beyond my strength and with every trial he will give me a way out of it and the strength to bear it
What a wonderful piece to be able to read and believe.
I never really got angry with God. People are often surprised when I tell them that. I know some people get very angry with God…. with life and the universe for dealing then the hand of cancer.
I remember speaking at a Novena a year or so after my diagnosis and I repeated what someone had said to me during my treatment – They said: God only sends you what he thinks you can handle and sure he knows you can handle this!
People say the strangest and weirdest things to people with cancer. Some people can’t even get the word CANCER out when they are talking to you. Others will whisper it – I was sorry to hear you have the CANCER. Some will avoid seeing you because they don’t know what to say. Some will say something entirely inappropriate like: “Well at least you still have your eyebrows and your hair and you don’t have the heart to tell them your eyebrows are drawn on and that you are wearing a wig!”
Back to God sending me this cancer because he knows I can handle it! Yes that’s what someone said to me early on and for a time I thought it was right. Then a conversation with a Jesuit priest called Father Richard Leonard after reading his book ‘Where the Hell is God?’ made me realise that thesis is nonsense. God sent me this cancer because he knew I could handle it!!!!… Of course he didn’t. I know that now but you listen and believe whatever keeps you going in those early days after diagnosis.
God loves me, he created me in his own likeness and he will never allow as much as a hair on my head to be harmed ……(okay let’s not mention the fact that I did lose all my hair – but I think you know what I mean)
God didn’t send me cancer to deal with – instead he gave me a complete toolkit for dealing with this particular cross in my life
LOVE: He gave me the ability to love and be loved.
FAMILY: He gave me the ability to live in a wonderful family unit where I am nurtured, loved and supported
FAITH: Thanks to God I have faith – faith that no matter what happens, he is waiting for me, he is watching over me and he loves me
PRAYER: I have the ability to pray and to be prayed for.
After my diagnosis and due to the risk of infection at various stages of my treatment I was unable to go to Mass. I was very well looked after by the parish with pastoral visits with Communion and I really appreciated that. There was a time too in the early days after the diagnosis when I could not pray. I literally could not find the words, could not find the space inside my head to get my prayers out.
But I knew that people were praying for me – I was told so in the cards and letters I received every day. If you have ever sent a card, a letter, a Mass card to anyone who is sick – I thank you again. Those cards and prayers help to remind us that we are not in this alone, that there is a community of people praying for us and willing us well.
Eventually I did find the words again and I was able to talk to God. I was able to bring things to him – like my fears and despair – that for a time I could not verbalise to anyone else.
People ask me all the time how I got through the harshness of the treatment,
With the prayers and good wishes of so many people
- With regular trusted visitors who saw me at my most unrecognisable and never let on how shocked they were by how sick and deathly I looked
- By visits from the chaplain in the hospital who let me hold the pix in my hand as we prayed with me because I was too sick to even have the blessed eucharist
- By the love of my life willing me on and telling me how well I was doing even before I realised it myself
- With the support of family who came and managed our home
- With the support of neighbours and friends who took the kids and did the school run
- I got through the treatment by reading that piece from scripture about trusting God and then flipping it to look at the beautiful children I had brought into the world and willing myself to be here for them
- I got through it with laughter and music
- I got through it thanks to the fantastic advances in medicine and the miraculous care of the nursing staff and the doctors and all the other supports
- I got through a particularly bad few days when I had a constant nose bleed by praying to Our Lady and I know she heard me ……. I know she interceded for me
- I got through a night of being very low and having trouble breathing by reading a little book about the life of Saint John Paul. Somehow that book got me through the darkness of that night into the light of the next day……..
So how do I live knowing that I have a life that is going to be shorter than I would have liked? Well the answer is I have to……….
Some days it is very difficult to have to visualise how my kids will manage without a mum if the worst should happen. But I don’t get to dwell on it too long as the practicalities of life and the demands of being a busy working mum take over ……. Where’s my homework journal? I forgot my PE gear? I was meant to dress up as a Ninja today!!! I was meant to have my tracksuit on today……… etc etc
I remember saying in a very early talk that I feel lucky to have been diagnosed with cancer – of course that’s not what I meant to say, I would much prefer to be cancer free – to have never had cancer in the first place but what I meant is that I am lucky that is made me refocus the way I was living, the goals I had in life and it has made me focus on what really matters.
What matters to me now is simply being here! What matters to me now is being around for my children and family as long as I can.
I don’t have a bucket list because I don’t need a fancy bucket list to define how I am going to live out how many years I may have left here on earth.
There are things I want to do of course but for me – my diagnosis of cancer has made me say yes to things I might not have said yes to before and it has made me realise how futile so much of what we spend our time doing is….
While I do worry about the future and sometimes have to battle to keep the cancer demons at bay– most days I am calm about it, I am determined to keep going and I have many a milestone I want to be here for and thanks be to God there are many I have been able to tick off.
I am so grateful to have been here for the million joyous milestones milestones I have had with the kids.
I won’t lie – living with the thoughts of dying young – or youngish *ahem* is not at all easy. Some days are better than others. But I am delighted to be still here and still fighting
Since my diagnosis the thing I love most about my husband (apart from the obvious) is his belief that we will grow old together. The other day we were watching this couple in their 80s negotiating the grocery shopping and they looked like an older version of us. Bryan looked at me and said ‘that will be us in another few years’.
I just love his belief and the fact that he visualises a life with me rather than without me! He makes me love him more every day for that…..
THE JOY OF THE LORD IS MY STRENGTH
Death is a part of life for all of us and for those living with serious illness, it’s something which perhaps we find ourselves thinking about regularly.
I take comfort in the knowledge that there is a room for me in my father’s house – that wonderful passage from John’s Gospel: “There are many rooms in my father’s house……….” He is waiting there for us. If I succumb to my illness in the future it is not the end for me……..
That might be hard for people who are not practicing or those who have no belief that there is something after this life to take any comfort from but for those who do, for me – it is a tremendous source of comfort…….
Remember that phrase from Corinthians – You can trust God not to be tried beyond your strength and with every trial he will give you a way out of it and the strength to bear it…..
The Joy of the Lord has been my strength during the last eight years of remission. I am so grateful for those eight years of health. I have had a few scares since the initial treatment but I really have a very good quality of life – that’s all we really want – to have a good quality of life regardless of what we are living with.
Pope Francis wrote a beautiful reflection for the World Day of the Sick this year. He said:
Time spent with the sick is holy time.
Time with the sick is a way of praising God who conforms us to the image of his Son, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.
He went on to say that today’s world occasionally forgets the special value of time spent at the bedside of the sick, since we are in such a rush; caught up in a frenzy of doing and producing that we forget about giving ourselves freely, taking care of others, and being responsible for others.
In an earlier address about sickness and suffering Pope Francis said:
“To suffer with patience is not easy. It is not easy whether the difficulties come from without or are problems with the heart, the soul or internal problems. But to suffer he said is not simply to bear something with a difficulty
To suffer is to take the difficulty and to carry it with strength, so that the difficulty does not drag us down. To carry it with strength: this is a Christian virtue. This means we do not let ourselves be overcome by difficulties. This means that the Christian has the strength not to give up, to carry difficulties with strength…”
These are profound words which really struck me.
My hope and my prayer is to have the strength to take this difficulty – my illness – to carry it with strength and to remember that the Joy of the Lord is my strength always.