Discovered 4500 years ago by a Greek physician, who wrote about the illnesses he found and the treatment that worked. On that papyrus with the list of diseases, for the tumor he found in the breast, he wrote there is no treatment.
In our own time it was a word said in hush tones, if you said it too loud, you might catch it. It was a scary word. It was a disease that no one wanted to talk about. For most it was a death sentence, just like that Greek physician found so long ago. And then things started to change.
The medical field aggressively started to detect and treat cancers with new therapies, new drugs, new surgeries, and new ways of catching the tumor early. People started to talk about the disease they had and the fight they were in the midst of, and then more and more people got to say… I am a cancer survivor. Today, June 5 is National Cancer Survivor Day. It is “an annual, worldwide Celebration of Life.”
We have had heard from survivors, from Joy, John, Christine, Fred. (Have I forgotten any?) Thank you for your witness to us, and the celebration of life! We also know of other survivors too and their caregivers: the spouses, children, family members that have stood by their loved ones through various treatments and surgeries.
Cancer is no longer a death sentence for everyone and it is no longer a word said in those hushed tones. We talk about it, we walk to find a cure, we are no longer afraid to say: Cancer. And yet the battle is far from over. We know that Cancer is insidious for it attacks us from within, turning the body on itself. The root of the word tumor in Greek comes from the word for mass or burden and if you take it back further, it means to carry a burden from one place to another. And those with cancer are burdened, they have to carry that burden, that mass in their life, through the treatment. In the words of St. Peter:
Cancer burdens us. It will try to take over your whole life if it can. It goes where ever it can in your body. We know that Cancer knows no boundaries. It doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, male or female, black or white, young or old, it doesn’t care if you are Christian or not. Cancer tests us. Again in the words of St. Peter:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings…
Cancer like the devil wants to devour us. Take away our love and hope and finally our lives. We must resist the temptation to be defined by it, the temptation to give into it. Resistance is the only way to live and fight cancer. As William Stringfellow once put it,
Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
“Resistance to the power of death is the only way to live humanly.”To resist is to fight against it and to know the prayerful support of others, who walk with us. For we are reminded that cancer is not a solo act, it affects so many people the world over and we know the suffering they are going through is like ours, and the caregivers that stand by them too. But as Viktor Frankyl put it,
“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”Frankyl survived the Holocaust and was able to find meaning so he could really live his life, even through such terrible suffering and horrors he felt and witnessed. For Frankyl, to resist such suffering is to find meaning, which is not to say it is part of God’s plan, for God does not give anyone cancer, nor is cancer reasonable. What I think he means is what I read in this story from the NY Times (Brooke wrote about the horrible experience and how her mother helped her through it in an essay in The New York Times (April 11, 2011))
The meaning in the suffering for Brooke was the Mom who loved her so much that she would spend 90 days on the love seat just to be with her daughter in her pain. That is faith and that is love. It is carrying the burden of another. For it is St. Peter who tells each of us, to hold on to that faith we have inside of us, even in the midst of suffering. For in the end, Christ will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.
Brooke had been married for only a year when her life suddenly became a nightmare. The FBI burst into their house at 6 AM & arrested Brooke & her husband on charges of fraud and conspiracy. Brooke would soon learn that her husband had used her identity to embezzle tens of thousands of dollars from his workplace. She had no idea. In an instant, she lost her home and her marriage.
The federal charges were held against her for 90 days. So Brooke went home to her Mom and Dad's. For 90 nights, she slept on their couch - and for those 90 nights, Brooke's mom slept on the love seat, across from the couch. Brooke did not ask her mom to sleep there. She just did. Brooke's mom quietly shared every sleepless night, every meal that went uneaten, every moment of anger and grief and despair, with her daughter. "Are you OK?" Mom would whisper during those long nights. "Are you OK?" Brooke would whisper back.
"It was our code," Brooke writes. "There was no real answer, but asking the question was enough. To know that someone loved me so much, was willing to feel my pain so intensely . . . made me feel encased in a bubble of protection. I began to wonder if sadness was this finite thing, a big black mass of which there was only so much in the world. If so, my mother was sharing it with me so that I did not have to bear the full weight. The more she took, the more she was unable to eat and sleep, and the faster her heart raced, the less [pain] there was for me."
Later, when the charges against her were dropped and she began to rebuild her life, Brooke shared the whole ugly story with her doctor. "How have you survived this?" the doctor asked. Brooke thought for a second. "While the charges were held against me, I slept on the couch in my parents' house. I spent 90 nights on that couch." Brooke paused. "And my mom? She slept for 90 nights on the love seat." The doctor blinked, unable to hold back her tears. "What a mom," she said softly, "what a mom."
It is amazing to me to see how many people in our community resist cancer by coming together year after year, to raise money and walk for a cure, to take a stand and fight against, as one book puts it, the emperor of all maladies. To walk because we know of other’s pain, the burden they carry with cancer and the suffering through treatments, for a night we can help bring meaning to those who carry such an awful burden.
May our faith sustain us in our suffering and may our faith compel us to help others, even if its just to walk for a cure or to sit next someone in pain, that by our faithful presence they know our love. And in faith, let us help celebrate life and help everyone reach another birthday. Amen.