Why I’ll Never Write a Cancer and Me Book

If I’m honest, and I do try to be, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which we celebrate today, is barely noticed in our monastic calendar. It is overshadowed by St Scholastica, celebrated yesterday, and SS Cyril and Methodius, celebrated on 14 February. It is one of those devotional feasts we pass over with a collect and very little else, other than remembering to pray for the sick. Being sick myself (metastatic leiomyosarcoma), you might think I would have something to say about it, but I haven’t. While some people find the experience of serious illness transformative, I have not. The world hasn’t changed, nor have I. I’m just as irritating as ever, and just as interested as I always was in the things that interest me. Admittedly, I haven’t the energy I once had, which I find frustrating; but I am not ‘battling’ cancer or ‘fighting’ my disease. I am just getting on with things, and tidying my sock drawer as best I can. (Tidying one’s sock drawer is nunspeak for preparing for death by trying to ensure there aren’t too many things for other people to clear up once one’s dead.)

I wonder whether we expect too much of the sick. If someone with cancer has no bucket-list, no special insights into the beauty and holiness of life, are we a little disappointed? If the sick person isn’t patient and humble and doesn’t accept a restricted diet and activity with never a grumble or rebellion, are we unnerved? It is not quite what we expect. The truth is, illness isn’t romantic and doesn’t necessarily make heroes or saints of us— it’s messy and expensive, and tends to make huge demands on others. On this feast of Our Lady of Lourdes we should be praying for the carers, the medical and nursing staff, the pharmacists, everyone who enables the sick themselves to go on. We often forget that when we are praying for the sick, what we are really doing is praying the prayer they themselves are unable to make. For myself, at the moment, that is above all a prayer for those who are helping me. The time will come when I will probably be too ill to pray. Then, more than ever before, I shall rely on the prayers of the Church. It will be for the Church to utter the praise and thanksgiving that will be beyond me. Just as every psalm sung in choir ends with the Gloria Patri, so, I hope, will the life of every one of us, including mine.

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28 thoughts on “Why I’ll Never Write a Cancer and Me Book”

  1. Thank you Dame Catherine for a very frank commentary on your situation and the likely outcome. Something that we all know will come to us, but we push it to the back of our minds as if we can avoid it or even hoping to live for ever.

    I suspect that your being so matter of fact about death might actually be quite helpful to many, who also struggle with the mythical ‘super sufferer’ who does everything to live life to the full and experience as much as possible before their inevitable death. To my mind, the time to be doing that is each and every day of our life, lived to the full, rather than waiting until the bell tolls.

    I’ve often wondered how to prepare for death with grace, I now have an excellent guide from you.

    [*] for you and those caring for you – as always.

  2. You write so beautifully and always touch my heart. So very glad I stumbled across your blog. I don’t pray very often, today I will, for you and all carers.

  3. Thank you for this – I really resonated with it. I’m out the other side of Hodgkin’s (as far as one ever is) and have been bewildered by how this whole experience has not left me a changed person. Whilst the treatments weren’t easy, it was never a ‘fight’ for me – or to the extent that it was, I was merely the battleground; a spectator whilst the disease and the experts slugged it out.

    I think I’m less patient, certainly more tired but otherwise not whelmed at all …

  4. By the grace of our Baptism and inasmuch as we are faithful to prayer and care of our souls, every suffering even the worst immaginable, like cancer, can easily be an occasion of sanctification for the patient and those around them.

    All that is required, is the simple interior act of offering ones suffering with Christ Crucified to the Eternal Father in union with His own Most Dolorous Passion.

    Here is a prayer one can use, if one wants:

    O Eternal and Everlasting Father, I offer thee all my sufferings of this day in union with the Eternal Sacrifice of Thy Most and Infinitely Beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, as an act of eternal love, thanksgiving, faith, hope, blessing, praise, exaltation, obedience, reverence, devotion, adoration, worship and in reparation, satisfaction, propitiation, forgiveness and expiation of each and every of my own sins and failings and vices from the first moment of my life to the hour when Thou shall call me from this world, and for each and every soul and Angel from the first moment of Creation until the end of time, for the praise of Thy Eternal Majesty and the every greater glory of Thy Holy Name! Hold me fast! and Keep me close in Thy Eeternal Embrace! Let it be, let it be! Amen!

    • Brother, do you have a terminal illness? I ask because phrases like ‘can easily be an occasion of sanctification’ though true (well, perhaps not the ‘easily’ part) nevertheless tend to ratchet up the anxiety and sense of failure of those whose whole energy is necessarily concentrated on ‘just getting through today’. When one is very sick, or so my own experience suggests, all words, even the best, are difficult. Please pray for those who are nearing their end and doing their best to be faithful disciples.

  5. I remember when I survived, and then was recovering from necrotizing fasciitis a few years back, having nearly the same thoughts- it was too difficult to describe and I think I rather unsettled a young priest friend in trying do do so. My Catholic school years having offered to me examples of St Bernadette or Therese of Lisieux or countless other suffering saints, and I remember feeling I had done something wrong, I wasn’t ill or suffering in the way I thought I ought to be, I wasn’t transformed, much to my disappointment. God felt very distant indeed, prayer seemed impossible, but felt somehow, buoyed by the many prayers of others. Thank you for this post- Incredibly insightful, and has helped me understand more that strange time in my life. You remain in my prayers dear Dame Catherine.

  6. I am so pleased to hear you are not using the inane words of war about cancer I detest that, illness is illness, we live with it as best we can. The only good thing for me that has come out of years of illness and pain has been to keep me where I should always be dependent on God and prayers, many a time I am too ill to pray. I keep you however always in my prayers several times a day,

  7. I will always be grateful to the Christian physician who spoke at a Christian Union meeting when I was a student. He said never to leave it until you were really sick in order to commit yourself to God,as it will all be beyond you.If we are His,when the time comes, we will know that all is safe with Him and be able to rest in His arms,assured that our brothers and sisters in Christ are praying on our behalf. Last night I drifted off to sleep so quickly and unknowingly in an armchair. I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful it would be if death came like that.Praise God that in Jesus he has passed through death’s door for us,so that the last enemy has been destroyed.

  8. Oh Catherine, such important words. Too long have we bowed at the altar of positivity and expected all who suffer to either fight valiantly, or provide ‘inspiration’ along the way. Your forthrightness does something better here, helping us face reality with love and faith.

    Thank you.

  9. My heart breaks for you, Sister Catherine, because you prayed so earnestly for me when I had breast cancer and I appear, at the moment, to be mercifully free of it.

    You are prayed for daily, with candles lit regularly and mentions at Healing and Reconciliation Mass. Our desire is to be with the Lord, but the last stages of reaching that place, our exit from this sphere, seems usually to be made not without trials, often unseen by others.

    Having been a carer of someone with terminal cancer in the past, I know well enough that the ‘bucket list’ scenario is one of those evasions, generally applauded by onlookers, that pull those at the centre of it into contortion. It seems to me an attempt to buy into the values of this world, the corporeal scene, when the sufferer would better seeking the Peace of Christ and focusing on the kind of preparation you are making. What it does, too, is place an enormous burden on carers who are called upon to ‘doublethink’ and keep up a pretence. Whilst some said to me that such dreams were no bad thing, I cannot think ultimately think it a Christian strategy for coping.

    God bless you, my dear friend. May he uphold you every moment. And may the Rosary be your provision, too, in your darkest hours.

    I have prayed and prayed for a miracle. And prayer is never unanswered, though it is often translated by the Holy Spirit into a form and language we cannot fully appreciate. I have always tried not to think in terms of foregone conclusions, whilst still facing up to present reality.

    My prayers also go out to Sister Lucy and all those around you at this time.

    With much love,

    Rosy.

  10. Sister with the thought in mind that we embrace the truth that we find elsewhere, I believe that you have embodied the zen concept of mindfulness and living in the present wonderfully. This is also a concept not foreign ( if I understand correctly) to Christian Mystics who contemplate our timeless God. Probably we could all hire a Sherpa and climb a mountain, or drive a race car, or skydive…and perhaps we mostly need that to learn that contentment and peace come from within. You inspire me to think better thoughts and try to do better things. How on earth can I thank you enough? I will offer prayers for those who provide medical care for you, I will offer prayers of praise, and I will also offer prayers of thanksgiving for people like yourself, who keep the rest of us sane.

  11. I may not be on FB or Twitter any more, Sister, but I still read your blogs.
    Bless you … you speak for many 😀
    I have had to cope with the expectations of a *few* others that having a progressive cancer will – as one commented – “mould me more in the character of God.” Actually I’m simply satisfied with being sinful, imperfect me for as long as possible!
    Prayers as always.

  12. Well said, Sister. Regarding the cancer, I personally know two people who have had extraordinary positive results via complementary / alternative medicines. One is already a “prayer warrior”, and by adjusting his diet and exercise programs and adding an over-the-counter proprietary herbal tea, has enjoyed a blessed remission from colon cancer. ESSIAC Tea (the founders name backwards) has a pretty good track record for helping cancer patients, without the horrible side effects of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Another friend used over-the-counter Magnesium supplements (500mg daily) for prostate cancer, also with near miraculous results. Hopefully these or other non-traditional, but effective solutions will provide you with some better alternatives to the more traditional (and expensive) treatments.

  13. I had not known of your illness; now that I do, I will be praying for you daily.

    I appreciate what you have written. I used to be a social worker on the oncology unit of a research hospital. The expectations that patients would be brave, wise, spiritual, calm – even stoic – and beautiful were palpable. In some instances, they were expected to comfort their family members or friends for the shock and sorrow felt at the patients’ own imminent demise. I often had to remind people that real-life illness is not like the movie version.

    Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative writer who explored low-wage jobs by spending a year doing them, wrote “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America” to explore the source of the deluge of positive-thinking messages (and desires that she be “perky” during chemotherapy). I am not recommending it as inspiring reading, but it is certainly useful for those not currently experiencing serious illness.

    Thank you for writing this post. I will be sharing it with one of our sisters who recently received a serious diagnosis.

  14. Blessings on you, Sister, in time of illness. (And just plain human HUGS!)

    It’s really hard for a lot of people to distinguish between “healing” and “curing” an illness; and I’m sure you’ve had your fill of people who think that because you’re *not* “battling cancer”, you’ve therefore “given in to your condition”. I hope God keeps making himself there for you, even when you’re not able to see Him. I guess that’s what I’ll pray for, for you.

    “Pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven.” — St. Thomas More

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