Living Through – A Spiritual Guide Through Cancer

I suppose I have recited Psalm 23 publicly at religious services more times than I can count, but in the private times of trial and tribulation, when I needed the comfort of the Holy One, I have turned to it as well. Allow me a preface, and then I will return to the Psalm itself.For most of my life, cancer has been something that stepped into the lives of other people – those, usually, upon whom I was called to serve. I am not a cancer survivor, but I have served as priest and pastor to countless numbers of cancer survivors, which is perhaps why the work of CancerForward has become part of the matrix of my ministry.

Though my mother died this past September after a long battle with small cell carcinoma, she was, for a long period, a cancer survivor. She, as her oncologist told my father and me, beat the odds, and because of outstanding care – the loving attention of my father and her husband – she likely survived twice as long as the average patient who faces her diagnosis.

My brother-in-law is just finishing up nearly six months of treatment from esophageal cancer, and from all appearances, has beat the odds. It has been a tough road of chemotherapy and radiation and soon to be minor follow up surgery, but he has survived.

One of my good friends recently survived ovarian cancer; another received a clean bill after the tumor was removed from her kidney. Three of my friends (and church members) all survived prostate cancer last year – each choosing a different method of treatment to reach their desired end.

Nearly a decade ago, I remember asking one of my good friends who was an oncologist, “Jim, how can you do that work all the time…it seems like it could really be depressing!” He smiled and said back to me, “Russell, the vast majority of my patients survive! Often when you are called in, we have reached passed the point of physical survival and the focus turns to the work you do…but you should know, the advances in medicine and treatment make surviving cancer a reality more and more each day!” Now often we say of those in my profession that we are called to share the “Good News,” but my friend Jim was also sharing some good news, that I had not really taken to heart, and take even more to heart after walking alongside my family members and friends who have survived in various ways over the last year.

Personally, you must know that I resist a theology or religion professing that belief in God means that everything in your life will turn out all right. Teaching that suggests if one will pray and trust enough – that same one will not have to face economic hardship, mental anguish for physical diseases or ailments – simply does not square with the Judeo-Christian faith that I serve. It may be the teaching of some other religions, but not that of the Hebrew’s Torah or the Christian’s Bible which tell us that the tough times do come from time to time, but for those who are willing, there is a promise made – one of companionship.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…,” is not the promise that we will avoid those valleys, it is really the promise that we will probably have to strut right down their middle! But it is a journey “through,” not our journey’s “end.”

When David wrote this Psalm, he held in his mind the image of a shepherd, who walked along his sheep with rod (a long staff often with a hook on the end to pull sheep away from danger) and staff (a long staff used to poke sheep in the behind to get them moving past the danger)! It was this process of constant companionship, of ‘push, pull,’ that if the sheep was willing to trust, the shepherd would get them through those dangerous valleys!

Those who have survived cancer, and those like me who have stood by with those survivors, know there are many good shepherds who are willing to use the rods and staffs to get the patient to the other side of the shadowy valleys – nurses, radiologists, physicians, sitters, aides, family members, friends, chaplains and spiritual advisors, therapeutic counselors – all of whom offer us a kind of companionship that helps us no longer ‘fear evil’ but find comfort instead.

Of course, in my work, I point to One more great Shepherd. That One Who really does give the old 24/7 care and, Who, like a physician bringing the next bag of chemo or the technician zapping with the next targeted radiation, is willing to bring care to our innermost parts. Of course, like any treatment, part of what makes it work is our willingness to receive it as well. In many ways it is a kind of dance between the shepherd and sheep that makes the path straight to the other side.

One more observation on how cancer survivorship comes into play. For a season, I lived directly on the Gulf Coast, and survived, virtually unscathed, the devastation brought by more than one huge hurricane. I spent countless hours praying with and listening to families who lost homes, businesses, and cherished relationships, when my suffering seemed to pale in comparison. I, for the first time, experienced what many know to be “survivor’s guilt,” that often rises out of those circumstances.

I encounter that too, sometimes, when I live and work among cancer survivors. They often say things to me like “Well…God must have something bigger in store for me…or important for me to do if He kept me around a bit longer!” That may be true, but it may also be true that God, for reasons that are beyond our explanation, gave the circumstances and meds and caretakers the gifts they needed simply to give you a bit more life – simply to enjoy. Maybe one of God’s many great purposes for all of us is simply to enjoy life and enjoy it, as Jesus said, “abundantly” (John 10:10). And if we get a bit more, or a bit longer, than someone else, then keep guilt out of your vision (and more importantly, your heart) and receive the “more” and “longer” as a gift that gives you the chance to give more, laugh more, serve more, love more, walk through more – guilt free by the way. And is that not the real mission of CancerForward?

So, just a few reflections on survivorship, at the prompting of my friend, Beth Sanders Moore. Hopefully it is a reminder for all of us, whether we walk through that valley of the shadow of death on our own, or travel along with someone we love, we have the promise that we are not alone….and there is comfort in that…and in that comfort we can gain the strength to keep walking through.

The information found here is not intended to provide nor should it be interpreted to provide professional medical, legal or financial advice. You should consult a trained professional for more information.

Category: Experts Speak

Tags: Breast Cancer, cancer survivor, CancerForward, CancerForward Expert Article, death, God, ovarian cancer, Psalm, Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson Jr., spiritual advisors, St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, survivor’s guilt