World Cancer Day 2020

To be honest, I’d rather be writing about St Gilbert of Sempringham whose feast-day this is, but I spend so much time responding to people who write to the monastery about cancer, their fears, their experience, and so on, that World Cancer Day seems a more necessary subject.

The theme for this year’s day is ‘I can and I will’, a brisk and bracing one. Tell that to someone vomiting after chemotherapy or sore and bleeding after weeks of radiotherapy and I wager you’ll get a weak smile at best. Good advice is equally hard to take, well-meant though it is. I confess to my shame that I tend to respond with a howl of rage whenever exhorted to fight, told that I can beat this thing or am recommended the superfood of the moment. The truth is, cancer is not very pleasant, nor is its treatment, and only those going through it really understand. It is horrible for those who look after the person who has cancer; it is horrible for those who love them. I myself have managed six years with stage 4 of a rare and aggressive form of cancer, thanks to God’s grace and the skill and determination of those involved in my treatment and care, but I am quite realistic about the outcome. As a friend cheerfully remarked online, ‘There is no stage 5. After stage 4, you die.’

So, all those encouraging reports about improved survival rates, new treatments and so on which we in the West take for granted, are only half the truth. They don’t apply to everyone, and in the developing world, where oncologists are few and treatment possibilities limited, they don’t apply at all.

Today we are encouraged to raise money for research in the hope that we can reduce the incidence of cancer and perhaps find cures for some of the commonest forms. It was unfortunate, therefore, that the first search about World Cancer Day 2020 that I performed with the DuckDuckGo search engine produced a series of results beginning with ‘Cancer Market’, subdivided into UK Cancer Market, US Cancer Market and Canada Cancer Market. There was nothing about the spiritual side of cancer care and precious little about the daily hurdles most cancer patients have to surmount.

It isn’t popular to say so, but I think the spiritual side of cancer care is as important as the more obvious, physical side. Having cancer is a lonely business. There are long hours of questioning and self-doubt, times of infinite weariness, periods when one does not want to admit how much something hurts, when one just wants it all to stop. It is then, of course, that one is brought back to reality by someone else’s need or one is given the grace to laugh at oneself.

The Church offers an abundance of set prayers and blessings for the sick, but nearly all of them seem to expect the sick person to recover. I find it difficult to say ‘Amen’ to such. Would it not be more honest simply to ask the Lord to do what we already know he is doing, accompany the sick person until death? And don’t forget the carers! They have the harder job in many ways. Often they do not get the attention and support they need while the cancer sufferer is alive, and after the death of the patient are left dangling, as it were, with scant interest in them or the weariness and distress they have experienced. Being exhorted to have more faith is entirely wrong, in my view.

Faith does not take away all doubt nor does it remove all fear, but for the cancer sufferer it enables us to go on — not gloriously perhaps, but at least we go on. I used to hope I might limp into eternity. These days I suspect I’m more likely to waddle there. I don’t mind. It doesn’t depend on me, and I am content. ‘I can and I will?’ No. He can, and He will.

Personal Note
The treatment I was having with Trabectedin has now ceased because it is no longer working. There aren’t many options for metastatic leiomyosarcoma but the sarcoma team at the Churchill are exploring whatever might be available. Please don’t send sympathy — it is not my style and makes me feel awkward. Prayer is what matters, and especially for those who are younger than I am and face amputations, etc. and for the carers for whom it can be so hard. Thank you.


14 thoughts on “World Cancer Day 2020”

  1. Thank you for your thoughts today, especially highlighting the need to promote the spiritual side of cancer care.
    Having recently accompanied my sister-in-law through her last hours, sitting with her along with most of her family and looking back over the many years of her illness, your prayer for the Lord to accompany you and all cancer sufferers on their own journey rang true to me as a powerful one which we should all embrace, especially when cancer affects family or friends.

    I offer my prayers for you, Dame Catherine, in thanks for the many gifts you have given me through your online ministry, even though we’ve never met.

  2. Please be assured of my prayers and of my heartfelt thanks for this message, and for your thought-provoking and encouraging daily blogs.

    As a carer for my dear late husband in the past I very much welcome your inclusion of carers in your message, Dame Catherine.

  3. God bless you Dame Catherine. My He provide you with the strength to continue one day at a time.
    Thank you for your honesty and truthful words which others recognise as oh so painfully true. You are an inspiration.
    My prayers and love are sent to you

    And no I don’t have the illness, but those who have and are now resting in eternal peace

  4. Although this blog is about World Cancer Day, there are many situations where the carers struggle and lack support whether it is diseases like cancer or conditions like autism or dementia.
    In my experience, although my initial treatment for a Stage 1 rectal cancer was successful, and technically, I’m now in remission, the original cause of hyperplastic polyps is still there, presently incurable and I live with the effects daily. However, I suspect that I’m very lucky and can actually live a ‘normal’ life so long as I can reach a toilet at short notice.
    There is a real need for prayers for perseverance for both the patient and their carers, I’m sure that you are right in thinking that most written prayers anticipate cure, but what we really need is peace of mind and ability to cope with day to day living and weakness or frailty. From a carer’s perspective it might mean prayers to calm one’s anger when frustrated by seeing the patient struggle whether with cancer, forgetfulness, confusion or dementia or even the way people interact with each other, or the lack or difficulties of official support.
    I remember visiting one lady whose husband had Alzheimers, who told us that many friends had stopped visiting, and it was then that she realised who her real friends were. Surely visiting them is the spiritual support that you call for, as well as keeping them in prayer.
    I pray that God will carry you all the way on eagle’s wings until you eventually reach stage 5 and his heavenly welcoming arms.

    • Not everyone wants to be visited. It can put an extra burden on the carer, expected to come up with tea and biscuits, etc. Too many people project onto others what they would like — or think they would like. That is why I urge prayer because it allows the Holy Spirit to chip in rather than letting our egos get in the way with our own ideas. I have often changed my mind about how to respond to someone after praying.

      • That visit happened when we visited Anne’s former home, so normally I ask before visiting and the only time I can ever remember being offered refreshments has been when visiting care homes, and then rarely. 🙂

        • I was replying to this sentence of yours,’Surely visiting them is the spiritual support that you call for, as well as keeping them in prayer,’ not commenting on the particular visit you mentioned. Of course, being nuns, I find that our wishes are sometimes overridden, always in a well-intentioned way, of course, but we usually break out the tea and buns notwithstanding. 🙂

  5. My husband’s chemo ended three years ago this week, it was followed by radiotherapy. We were very fortunate to have the amazing care of Addenbrooke’s hospital, our churches and our friends and family. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t remember it, and we count our many blessings. But, cancer never ends.

  6. Once again you have managed to summarise a very difficult subject succinctly and with great wisdom. As a carer in the past and now a cancer patient I have read many, many words on this subject and cannot remember any other article which has got to the heart of the matter in such a simple way yet with such profound meaning. Your comment about prayers almost always being for physical healing is also apposite – sometimes with difficult outcomes when prayer does not appear to have been answered. I often reflect on the beautiful words of the Proficiscere. We will remember you in our prayers as you continue on your ‘cancer journey’. Peace be with you.

  7. Thank you for reading this post, for commenting, and, above all, as St Benedict was wont to say, for praying. A Facebook user said he found it harrowing. I apologize for that. It wasn’t meant to be. Everyone’s experience is different but we can all learn from each other. At least, that is what I believe.

  8. Thank you, as ever. You are bearing the Cross of Christ in the world for the liberation of others. God bless you, uplift you, console and sustain you and those who watch over you. Please be assured of continued prayers and candles.

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