“You are just never the same. You are changed. You step through a door and you can’t go back. You are different than you were before. You are just never the same.” Those were Carolyn’s words at our Cancer with Compassion support group this past Thursday. She is one of the most articulate among us. When she speaks, I wait for a “gold nugget” — something that says it all for all of us. Last Thursday was one of those days. She said it all for all of us.
And she was of course talking about cancer — once diagnosed, you are truly never the same. The cancer diagnosis door — once you walk through it, you can never go back. You are changed. For the rest of your life, you are changed. For good and for the bad, you are changed and you can’t go back. And until you have experienced this for yourself or have been very close to someone who has, you can’t fully understand that truth. But those of us who have experienced it … we know.
My once-every-three-month check up was last Tuesday — complete with blood work-up and a meaningful appointment with my oncologist. Always before those check ups, an unwelcome shadow comes visiting. It rests on my soul and blankets my thinking. I ask myself, “What if this time …?” And I pray. I grump at my dear husband and I know why, so I pray some more. I find tears on my cheeks at unpredictable times and my sleep is shaken with unsettling dreams. And I know why. So I pray some more.
And the day comes and I go to my appointment with my faith intact but the shadow still accompanying me. This time, all was well — the check-up, the blood work — all was well. I say a prayer of thanks. And I fully exhale and the shadow leaves … for another three months. No, you are just never the same.
But not being the same isn’t always a bad thing. One of the good things is that you see life differently — through different eyes. It used to be that the suffering were peripheral to my sight. Oh I saw them, sure, but they weren’t right in front of me. They were peripheral. They weren’t in the center of my world. But now, I see them both all around me and straight in front of me.
Like the 83 year-old lady in the waiting room on the day of my oncology appointment. She was bald, thin, pasty complexion, weak as her husband settled her into the chair next to me while he slipped into the men’s room for a moment. Maybe before cancer I would have kept reading my magazine. Oh God, in the old days, would I just have kept reading my magazine?!
But not now. You see, I’ve had cancer and you are just never the same after cancer.
If that dear woman would ever have been in my peripheral vision, cancer had placed her front and center and I could see only her in that oncology waiting room. “Hi, I’m Cathie. Who are you?” “I’m Ella. You have pretty hair,” she replied with a smile. A sweet conversation ensued, first about hair, then about cancer and treatment, then about husbands and soon her husband, her best friend, her prince came back. “Your wife says wonderful things about you,” I assured him. “We’ve just been having a debate about whose husband — hers or mine — is the best husband in the world.” He smiled, a little weary and I recognized that smile, having seen it on my dear husband’s face. I blessed them both and took a deep breath as I was called by the nurse into the exam room.
Yes, cancer has changed me. There are the bad things — the memories of pain suffered, the little bit of PTSD still left from diagnosis and treatment, the way this has aged both my dear Prince Philip and me, and of course the proverbial shadow that threatens recurrence on a regular basis. But then there are the good things. I am a better person than I was before — a better Christian. Suffering people are no longer on the periphery any more. Instead, they are front and center. I see the world through different eyes. I love suffering people.
St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5: 14, “The love of Christ compels us because we are convinced that He died for all.”
God used my enemy cancer to convince me that Christ really did die for ALL, including those who suffer with cancer. And now, His love COMPELS me in a way I was not compelled before. Cancer came into my world, entered my home, traveled through my body, changed my mind, altered my emotions, became my story — and I will never be the same.
If this be so, Lord, let it be. And please, use it for your glory, I pray.
After more than 25 years in parish ministry, Rev. Cathie retired in early 2018 to pursue a quieter life with her husband Philip in the mountains of Central Oregon. Although no longer a leader in congregational life, she continues to follow her calling and passion to minister to those who suffer, especially those with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.