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.
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.