Faith and Cancer

Most people who read this blog know that I have a rare and aggressive cancer that is deemed incurable: metastatic leiomyosarcoma. I’ve never hidden the fact. Equally, I’ve tried to avoid the ‘My Cancer and Me’ narrative that seems to be increasingly popular but which I often find profoundly irritating. The truth is, cancer is a bore. It’s lonely, painful and sometimes frightening. If, like me, one has survived longer than predicted, one can even feel slightly guilty because of all the good and kind people who haven’t. Of course, one knows that the situation could change overnight, but one can’t live on a cliff-edge all the time; so one just gets on with life as best one can. In that context there are a couple of questions that often arise and which may be worth my trying to answer for the sake of others who face them.

The first has its humorous element. I am sometimes asked if I have lost all my hair, which is then swiftly followed by, ‘But it won’t matter to you because you’re a nun.’ As it happens, I haven’t lost all my hair, only some of it, but the assumption that it doesn’t matter is wide of the mark. I really don’t like digging out clumps of hair from my hairbrush, and being thin on top has distinct disadvantages when wearing a veil. Should I be indifferent to these things because I am a nun? The sun scorches my head just as much as it scorches anyone else’s!

The second is more complex. I am often told, ‘It’s OK for you. You have faith.’ Or, if my interlocutor is more subtle, the point is framed as a question, ‘Does your faith help you deal with cancer?’ I am not sure what answer to give. Yes, I believe, but because I’m a Catholic, I believe in the possibility not only of eternal salvation but also of eternal damnation; so my faith is as much of a challenge as it is a comfort. Cancer doesn’t exempt one from the need to be virtuous, nor does it excuse (though it may sometimes explain) conduct unworthy of a Christian. It is said that the closer one gets to God, the more one becomes aware of the enormity of sin. All I know is that sin is real, and although monastic life presents one with many opportunities to grow in holiness, one can reject them. The sins of missed opportunities may not look to the outsider to amount to very much but to the perpetrator they can be huge.

I think, however, that what my questioners are really asking about is not eschatology but the here and now. Does having faith help one cope with the business of having cancer — the endless hospital appointments, treatments that make one sick or weak, the inability to do things one once did easily, the terrors that can come in the middle of the night? Some people seem to manage these without difficulty. I don’t. I don’t have the kind of faith that wears a permanent smile. I have been given the faith of the plodder instead, and I confess that at times it is that of a grumpy plodder. Somehow, and I must admit I don’t always know how, I get up each day and begin again. I do not progress from triumph to triumph but crawl from one little disaster to the next. In a way, I think that is immensely liberating. Too many people expect those of us living with cancer to be defiant. If we are not hang-gliding or ticking items off on a bucket-list of things to do before we die, we have failed. I have no bucket-list, no desire to cram in ‘one last experience,’ and I suspect many feel the same way.

That makes me think the question of faith is being looked at the wrong way round. Wouldn’t it be better to ask, does cancer help one’s faith? There I feel on surer ground, because one thing cancer undoubtedly does is to simplify one’s life. The fact that one cannot do all that one used to do, that one’s planning goes from long-term to (very) short-term, that one knows there is nothing one can do of oneself to stop the cancer growing inside, changes everything. One realises how much of one’s daily life has been a living in the future rather than the present, yet it is only in the present that one can encounter God. To be stripped of one’s defences in such a thorough-going way is painful, but it is also salutary. One re-evaluates everything, and from that re-evaluation comes, I think, a renewed sense of wonder — not all the time, of course, it is difficult to wonder when one is being sick or unable to breathe or move freely — and, hopefully, a deeper compassion for others. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ must be one of the most misused sentences in all scripture but when its meaning finally pierces one’s heart, one cannot but pray. And prayer is the secret of growing in faith, hope and love.

Today is the 224th anniversary of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne with whom the Benedictine nuns of Cambrai shared a prison. There must have been dark and lonely hours for all of them but today we remember only their faith and their courage. It wasn’t the kind of faith nurtured by cancer but one which was nourished by being true to what they had professed. Their courage was sheer gift, but let us hope we may be given the same gift if and when we need it. Let us ask their prayers for all whose faith is faltering, for those who face new and difficult challenges, and those in their last agony — especially, please, those who have come to the end of their cancer pilgrimage, and for those who love them.


27 thoughts on “Faith and Cancer”

  1. Thank you for your courage. I’m sure this needed saying, and that it will echo tunefully in many people’s hearts. You are in my prayers, dear Sister. Please pray for me.

  2. Bless you Sister. I often don’t have much faith at all whereas my husband ( who is the one with the fatal disease) does. But I absolutely agree about living in, and giving thanks for, the present. It is all we have and we must live our best life in it. For what they’re worth you are in my prayers even if I often wonder if anyone is listening…..

  3. Today’s blog was wonderful. Thank you. The truth of life is surely about those who plod through each day, trying their best and putting their faith in Christ.

  4. May the Living God in Jesus, the Christ, surround you with his grace. Living in the present can be very eschatological, and sometimes frightening. But I pray that some of the “earnests” ( arrabon) of the full revelation of the glory of God’s Kingdom may be glimpsed by you often, especially as you share your journey in Christ, with us. Peace…….and occasionally some Joy !

  5. Thank you for writing this. I do hope you are able to blog for a long while yet. As one of those who commented on hair (!) I’d just like to explain (as I’m sure you realise!) that one difference between your situation and other women cancer sufferers is that their hairstyles are often very much part of the way they present themselves to the world. They cannot easily hide the effects of chemo except by wearing wigs that often look artificial. A small advantage of being a nun is that you look as beautiful as ever wearing a veil! I have thought that if I find myself in this position I might take up wearing a hijab!

  6. God please give us the courage to face our sufferings here on earth and keep us faithful ever to you in Jesus name.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story so that many can see how suffering can affect ones choices and perspective on life and makes the present so important. You clearly have chosen to make this journey with God and it has drawn you to Him in prayer for yourself and others.

    The way we all face our challenges are unique but our faith in God who can give us the courage and virtues needed to withstand suffering and remain faithful makes us one in community with those who believe.

    You are a true blessing to us in sharing your faith and struggles and uplift us in continuing our path to continue our journey to God who loves us so much.

  7. Bless you, Dame Lucy & bless the Community of your profession & those Benedictines of Cambrai, who knew the Carmelite Martyrs. Our sin is ever before us & our knowledge of it grows ever greater. But, our joy, that each morning , how ever difficult we rise with Him in glory to try again is our hope. Thank you for your discernment , honesty & the help/hope you give to the rest of us.

  8. Oh Sister. My dear Daddy just lost his great battle with the same type of cancer you are dealing with. I did not know you had the same type as he did. Maybe I wasn’t to know until the right time. This blog touched my heart, brought tears again, and perhaps a little healing. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

  9. “I do not progress from triumph to triumph but crawl from one little disaster to the next.” This reminded me of a quotation from Samuel Beckett which I keep on my mantelpiece: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.

  10. ‘I do not progress from triumph to triumph but crawl from one little disaster to the next.’ This reminded me of a quotation from Samuel Beckett which I keep on my mantelpiece: ‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.

  11. “Does cancer help ones faith…” this is an excellent somersault! The imagery of pilgrimage is deeply moving. Thank you for your teaching. Know that you have made your pilgrimage something that brings us a deeper understanding of faith. Inspiring! with love and prayers—

  12. I recently attended a baby shower, where one of the mothers attended mentioned the difficulties associated with having to stop her medication for depression during the pregnancy. This led on to a candid discussion among us about living with depression, and subsequently, whether having faith made it better or worse. The feeling that being depressed is somehow your fault and God wouldn’t want this for you, came up; similarly whether faith can act as holdback from suicide when it otherwise feels like all hope is absent, and the feelings of guilt about your mental state that faith can reinforce. I think those of us with strong faith definitely felt it had helped, but had needed to work through the negative aspects en route to feeling that way, which is turn had led to strengthened faith in the end. Perhaps all journeys through suffering may have a similar effect.

  13. Please accept my prayers ✝ and my tears for your predicament and your suffering. I pray for a miracle for you dear Sister Catherine. God bless, peace and love be with you now and forever xx.

  14. Sister, your constant tweets and prayers have been with me throughout my treatment and recovery. I know now that you and your prayers have kept me going on esp when I don’t find it easy to pray

  15. Thank you for writing this. It is surely forgivable – human – to be grumpy in the long slog of illness and invasive treatments! Your honesty is inspirational, as is your courageous perseverance in thinking, reflecting and in writing words that add something to your readers’ lives. If this is plodding, you do it awfully well.

  16. Dear Sister, Thank you for your honest account of how it is for you to live with incurable cancer. I had tonsil cancer and am in remission, and 14 years later I am not able to do much any more from lack of energy and aches and pains and some external circumstances outside of my control. (I do continue to write and publish in Catholic publications, which is a gift from God.) In both the cancer treatment and in my daily life as a 72 year old, I experience what you described so well as crawling from one disaster to the next. Without my faith, I couldn’t bear my life, mostly because my self-created ambitions have not been realized, but with my faith (and yours) I know that I am loved and that I can offer up my frustrations and prayers to try in a small way to help bring faith and eternal life to others. I pray to only seek God’s ambitions for me instead of my own.

    What you wrote about people dying, it reminded me how one time an oncology nurse told me that lot of times when people are dying they are tormented by knowing they have sinned but know of no way to seek and obtain forgiveness. Our faith not only shows us our sins but also gives us the sacrament so we can confess and receive absolution. Thanks be to God.

    Like you, I pray for the dying, that they will receive the gift of contrition and the mercy of God. I’ll pray for comfort for you in your times of pain and loneliness. Please pray for me too.

  17. We just learned that my husband’s cancer has probably metastasized to his lungs. (Same cancer as you) I had to chuckle at the term “grumpy plodders” which describes us perfectly. As I lay awake each night in a panic, there is this voice that continues to say “trust me”. I am hoping that it is the voice of God trying to break through my fear and anxiety. God bless you.

    • I know it may sound crazy, but try not to worry. I won’t bore you with where all my metastases are, but I have several in my lungs, which are already in poor shape because I have pulmonary sarcoidosis. Not being able to breathe/becoming very breathless is scary, but one learns to adapt. Panic communicates itself to the person with sarcoma and makes them even more breathless, so if you can try to hold the panic in while being quite honest and open about your fears, you will be helping your husband a lot. May God bless you both. Never forget you are the apple of his eye. He will never forget or forsake you.

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