“In life and in death we belong to God. And life is a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage.”
I quote these declarations from A Brief Statement of Faith and the Confession of 1967 multiple times a day. Sometimes as a pep talk. Sometimes as affirmation. Sometimes as an exhausted last resort. Sometimes as the only hope-filled truths.
As a pediatric oncology chaplain, I meet kids and their families when they are first diagnosed with cancer. I’m there when the scans show no changes. I’m there when tumors shrink after radiation. I’m there when scans show tumors are growing even with chemotherapy. I’m there when remission is declared. I’m there when relapses occur. I’m there to bless stem cells before transplant.
Families are appropriately in shock at the time of diagnosis. Partly because the day before, life as they knew it was some version of normal and their child didn’t have cancer. And partly because their child has cancer. Cancer is enough of a beast for adults, but for it to invade infants, kids and teens is an added layer of cruel and unusual rudeness.
A common sentiment in pediatrics is that any of us would take illness from a child if we could. We would take a brain tumor so the teenage girl could go to her senior prom. We would endure any amount of chemo to ensure a toddler never did. We would gladly take any of it if it meant kids of all ages could go on about the business of growing up.
Unfortunately, cancer (like love, life and death) “doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes and it takes,” as the musical “Hamilton” proclaims.
Cancer takes energy. Cancer takes time. Cancer takes money. Cancer takes away plans and dreams. Cancer takes gumption. Cancer takes determination. And sometimes, cancer takes some of our favorite people – often long before they or we are ready to say goodbye.
As people of faith, we are well aware of our finitude on any given day, especially given the state of the world. It’s not that we don’t know we will all die, it’s that we don’t want to live without the people we love most. It’s not that we don’t know diseases like cancer can be terminal, it’s that we need our loved one to be the new statistic. Yet cancer doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. And until there’s finally a cure, together we courageously “wait for it, wait for it, wait for it.”
One side effect of cancer treatment that’s as gross as nausea is the battle imagery. I can’t stand hearing that someone who died from cancer “lost her battle.” Anyone who ever endured cancer invading his or her body is anything but a “loser.” The battle imagery is dangerous and painful. It implies that when someone dies of cancer, he died because he didn’t fight hard enough. It implies that if someone chooses palliative treatments in the face of terminal diagnosis, she is giving up or not fighting.
It’s also an unpleasant side effect for those living with cancer or thriving in remission. We celebrate and are grateful, yet battle imagery can add to a patient’s sense of survival guilt. It does not mean he isn’t (or wasn’t) in the fight of his life during treatments. It does not mean she doesn’t fear recurrence at annual scans. It does not mean they aren’t strong and brave. But saying they “won the battle” when they, too, have lost friends, colleagues and family members to cancer implies that they are somehow superior to the people they miss. Let’s assist in savoring their celebrations and milestones. Let’s not taint their gratitude and gumption with a prescription for guilt.
On our palliative care team, one of our priorities and goals is to help patients and their families “add life to days, not just days to life.” We want the finite time people have with their loved ones to be as physically comfortable as possible. We want them to be in the venue of their choice. I regularly tell hospital staff that I see our job in spiritual care as helping people have the best version of the worst days of their life. And I regularly tell families that we all get to choreograph our own crisis, for there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.
As people of faith, the completion and fulfillment of our baptisms in death isn’t to be feared. The thought of, and reality of, living without those we love until we are reunited in resurrection is what’s scary. And it’s unfathomable to think God loves them even more than we do. But God does. In life and in death they belong to God. And so do we.
May we have the courage to embody this prayer for each other and ourselves every single day:
God who gave us birth, you are ever more ready to hear than we are to pray. You know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking. Give to us now your grace, that as we shrink before the mystery of death, we may see the light of eternity. Speak to us once more your solemn message of life and death. Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Worship)
ASHLEY-ANNE MASTERS is the interim manager for spiritual care and the Heartlight program at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.