Pain: the Price of Compassion

Recently I’ve read a number of articles suggesting that it is ‘scandalous’ this or that cancer drug is not being made available on the NHS, or that it is somehow morally wrong that not more is being spent on research into a particular cancer. Of course it is sad when someone we know and love has a deadly disease and we can do nothing to alleviate their suffering; but we have to recognize that cancer is not the only life-threatening disease, its treatment is very expensive, and the NHS cannot afford everything that might be possible without cutting back on other, equally important, treatments. But there is another aspect to this question that isn’t often addressed. We have a problem with pain.

Many people seem to think that there is something wrong with pain. We should not have to experience it. It is unnecessary, degrading. I agree that pain is not, in itself, desirable or ennobling, but I would argue that it is part and parcel of being human and, as such, unless deliberately inflicted by one person on another, can never be degrading. To me, it seems perfectly acceptable to alleviate pain with whatever helps medical science can provide, but get rid of it altogether? I doubt whether that would be possible, even in the case of physical pain. As for emotional pain, who could avoid that without becoming an unfeeling monster?

Often it is not the pain we feel ourselves but the pain of someone we love that troubles us. Much of the so-called ‘assisted dying’ debate has centred on the horror of watching a loved one suffer and wanting to spare them (and ourselves) that pain. I am beginning to wonder whether that apparently very laudable aim doesn’t have within it the seeds of something much less praiseworthy: the desire to control life and death according to our own notions of what is right or wrong. The Catholic Church is very clear in her teaching that extraordinary means do not have to be used to keep someone alive. She is equally clear that we do not have the right to deny life to the unborn, the disabled, the elderly, those society does not value (e.g. girls in certain countries of the world; those whose ethnic or religious identity is shunned). That is a tough teaching, but its toughness does not make it any less true— and there’s the rub.

Many people dismiss the Catholic Church’s teaching on life-death issues simply because it is the teaching of the Catholic Church. Although I myself could put up a ‘religious’ argument for the acceptance of pain in our lives, I would prefer to argue my case on the grounds of our shared humanity. It is human to experience pain, both physical and emotional; and experiencing pain teaches us, quite literally, the meaning of compassion. It is a price I, for one, am willing to pay.

In case anyone thinks I am unaffected by these questions, it may be worth mentioning I have metastatic leiomyosarcoma, which the UK Sarcoma site, with classic British understatement, describes as

widely regarded as an ‘orphan’ cancer, which means that it has few relationships with other more common cancers. It is also a rare disease and thus active research into new treatments is not always seen as a priority by many in the scientific or pharmaceutical world.

The chemotherapy drug I have been treated with for the last six months is no longer funded by the Cancer Drugs Fund.


24 thoughts on “Pain: the Price of Compassion”

  1. A brave and inspiring article. My thought is that pain becomes more bearable when others support us. Thank you for sharing your perspective and my thoughts are with you.

  2. A brilliant article Sr.C;spoken from the heart and out of profound personal experience.C S Lewis said that “pain is God’s megaphone”;it brings us to attention and certainly closer to God. Through the past 10 or so years I have experienced deep emotional pain,and God’s presence has become all the more sweet. I have sort to live by 1 Corintians 13;my life values being unconditional love and total foregiveness.It is not on the mountain tops where the sun shines and the view is great,but in the valleys of life, that seed grows well and fruit is born.

  3. Dear Sister Catherine
    As so often you manage to articulate so well what i have been thinking.
    And you know how much i understand & empathise with you in your own circumstances.
    You do the rest of us a great service by sharing your reflections as refracted through your own experience.
    Daily prayers as always.

  4. I am so sorry that your drugs are no longer funded. That is sad and disheartening.

    It is pain that makes us human(e), makes us compassionate and teaches us to grow. While the unnatural ending of life is a sin, the alleviation or at least moderation of pain is not. Compassionate hospice care can moderate pain for the dying and allow for a peaceful death.

  5. It is indeed human to experience physical and emotional pain, but there are degrees both of pain and of any given individual’s ability to accept it. Despite having experienced (in common with most people) some difficult times in my life, I am unable to put myself into the shoes of someone perpetually living with extreme pain or disability, and am therefore unable to speculate on what I would be able to bear in such circumstances. I applaud your willingness to pay the price for learning the meaning of compassion, but do not know that I would have that strength.

    Surely, the assisted dying issue is really not about whether we want to spare another person’s pain, or to deny life to someone, but whether that person themselves should have the right to decide whether and when to end their own life. Not everyone has religious convictions against suicide, and it has always struck me as strange and somewhat contradictory that suicide is legal for all except those who are no longer physically capable of killing themselves, however much they wish to die. No-one is allowed to help them to end their lives peacefully and with dignity at a time of their own choosing.

    I suspect that I might be more prepared to persevere with a life of pain if I knew that there was an escape if I needed it.

    • I’ve written interminably, as it seems to me, about different aspects of euthanasia/assisted dying so don’t want to repeat what I’ve said here. However, the fact that taking one’s own life is legal in some circumstances doesn’t for me make it right; nor would I necessarily agree with you on what constitutes a peaceful and dignified death— nor that we have a right to choose its timing. Pity there isn’t a virtual UL tea-room to hand!

  6. I’m sure it’s inappropriate to say this, but I am angry that God will probably be taking you from us prematurely. I only discovered you a few months ago and your posts have helped me more than I can express. I had encountered anyone like you before and you were just what I needed. You now have a special place in my heart, and I will miss you. I hope your pain remains bearable with God’s help.

    • Well, insofar as it rests with me, I don’t intend dying any sooner than I have to, but death is part of life, a very important part of life. I hope, when the time comes, I shall be able to embrace it as I have tried to embrace all the other aspects of my life. So, please don’t grieve for me just yet but pray that I may go on as well as possible. 🙂

        • Thank you for your prayers but I must clarify: the liposomal doxorubicin with which I was being treated is no longer funded by the UK’s Cancer Drug Fund, which is rotten for those just diagnosed. However, there is only so much of that particular drug one can have in the course of a lifetime, so for me, there will be another form of chemotherapy — if I’m well enough to have it.

  7. Yes! I’ve been writing about pain over the last few weeks as I lay on my floor with a prolapsed disk in my back. I actually find myself, after week 3 and despite the pain, actually having some amazing time with God, almost wishing it wouldn’t end (almost, not entirely!).
    I read a great book by Philip Yancey and Dr Paul Brand, called ‘The Gift of Pain’ which looks at the very issue of pain and why it’s there. Fascinating and enlightening – definitely recommend it.
    If anyone’s interested in my posts on pain (and hope it’s ok to include a link but if not let me know!) by blog is at: There are a few guest posts on pain coming in the next few weeks too…

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  9. Odd. When I was a teacher I used the example of a cat to teach prepositions. “Whatever a cat can do, so can a preposition. She is under the piano, or beside it, or in the cardboard box or walking on a ledge…” and from there the lesson continued with how a prepositional phrase is simply another modifier. One student leapt from his seat, a sleepy senior, just as the bell rang to end class, and said, “Your kidding! That’s it?!” It was like watching lightening kiss the inside of a bell jar.

    One lives for moments like that when one teaches language.

    I am reminded of that moment because at this moment pain is very much like that cat. It is everywhere. In me, on me, beside me. As my fever grows pain curls around old broken bones and outlines their contours to remind me how I once played football with enough enthusiasm to break both wrists on the same play…and continue to play.
    I am reminded, too, of my glory days in college when I would return home after two hours of fencing practice, my back covered in welts (we were working on sabre parries) and dismissing them as just pain.

    Sport taught me that pain was just pain. Something to be put in a box and lick after the battle was over and the archetype of being a ‘man’ taught me that the battle is never over. One carried wounds with pride, ask anyone that fought on Crispin’s Day.

    The trick was always to find some way to separate pain from suffering. Suffering is of the mind and sometimes it requires no physical wound, no scar just a scab of the mind or heart the gets picked at until it opens and bleeds. Then, just the movement of air is enough to make that landscape into a lake of fire.

    I think of death and sleep and how alike they seem. I find myself drawn to bed earlier these days, curling like a wounded deer in a pile of leaves seeking comfort, warmth, safety and, to borrow from E.A. Poe, surcease of sorrow since sorrow and suffering seem born of the same mother.

    Like you, there is no cure for what is wrong with my body. The drugs that slow death’s journey come at a very high price ($9,000 a month) but my federal health insurance (Medicare) pays most of the bill.

    I remember in my more jaunty moments when they would talk about extensions that this drug would provide me with another 3-6 months of life and my response was, “Which months? If I could choose they would be the months between my 19th and twentieth birthdays. Now I would request they be from years 7 to 8. Those were the days of booboos that mommies would kiss and make better. Suffering was along way off.

    Instead, the months they gave me are full of real pain, controlled most of the time with oxycodone and an ever increasing witches brew of other drugs that befog the mind and leave the body insensate.

    With this prelude as complete as I care to indulge, let me put this card on the table. Pain and suffering lead me, like St Dismas to ask for forgiveness and to defend wherever possible those that are innocent of the causes of pain. It has made me more mindful of others, yourself of course and others I have and will never meet even in this tangential fashion. I hurt for them. Pain and suffering has taught me compassion. Is that its purpose?

    The Middle East is a lesion on my heart, a dripping, squirting wound that no bandage yet made can staunch. Tens of thousands of pregnant women in refugee camps absent family, with not enough food, medicine, even a blanket or a pile of leaves into which they may crawl for animal comfort.

    Thank you kind Lord for all that you have given me for all those things I have and more. I look at my clean sheets, my packages of pills and recall the lovely hug that my oncologist greeted me with yesterday and who asked how the “things of the Spirit” were going in my life since our last visit.
    What a gift, Sweet Jesus, you have given me. Thank you for providing my very own Simon of Cyrene who comes with joy and tenderness to help me on these last steps when I can finally take the time, gain the focus and lick those wounds. Does pain and suffering make one more mindful or easier to comfort?

    I suffer now. I suffer with the knowledge that nothing can be done, that I will expire, that I leave behind me things undone. I also suffer from the things I did and shouldn’t haver done. My life is one long confession now and I thank the Church for giving me words, guiding my thoughts in ways that pain might have clouded over. Is that what pain does, clarify and allow in the last times a chance to stand alone and say a perfect act of contrition?

    And therefore, is not pain and suffering a gift of Our loving Father made whole and meaningful through the Son and rising with the Holy Spirit to Heaven’s gate?

    • Thank you, Ron, for taking the time and trouble to share that with us. You omit just one thing (although really you have said as much in different ways): pain makes us more honest than we could be otherwise. Bless you!

  10. I am always mindful that the risen Jesus was recognised by his scars….

    Some days I see things at the hospital which, humanly speaking, make me want to take issue with God. But He is God, and it’s not for me to try to be God (though I am very honest with Him!) I hang on to the fact that God himself didn’t side-step suffering and pain, though it would have been so easy.

    Thank you Sister, as ever. Thank you Ron. May God bless you both, and all who have a life-threatening condition.

  11. As someone who lives with a chronic pain syndrome I have some hard-won thoughts on this. Pain is part of life on planet earth for all sentient beings. As the Buddha said, “Life is “dukkha,” or “suffering.” We often view pain in all its manifestations as if something has gone radically wrong, and as if experiencing pain and suffering shouldn’t have to be tolerated, or are signs of failure. It’s not so much the pain that causes suffering, but our reactions to it: resistance, pushing back, non-acceptance of the reality of our illness, our disease process, or that we’ve developed an illness at all! Pain is part of life. The more we try to push it away, become upset and angry because we cannot accept what our bodies are doing, the more we suffer.

    Our thoughts and ideas about the pain can either exacerbate the pain or help us to work with it. We live in fear that the pain will become worse, and project our fear into the future rather than staying in the present moment. We can (I know) practice a kind of non-judgmental awareness, staying with the pain, allowing and accepting it as best one can, observing its qualities, how it changes, and then turn down the volume of resistance, fear, and resentment. It doesn’t take away the pain, but it can change the pain to something we can work with and accept. Christ accepted a horribly shaming and painful death for us! He emptied himself of his own desires and was open to the full human experience that we must live, including pain. There were no “outs” for him.

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