Cancer: A personal story

Is there any other word in our language that causes the same emotional reaction as does the word cancer? To even say it feels vulgar to many people, and to experience it either firsthand or with someone we love is an arduous and challenging experience. Statistics indicate that the vast majority of us will either develop some form of cancer or will travel that journey with a family member or close friend.

As we look at the Bible and our faith history, we see that our ancestors also had curses of health that impacted their lives. Leprosy, plagues and other stories of physical sickness and hardship can be found in many places throughout the Bible. I wonder if cancer will be the illness described by historians as they recount our lives during this era? We read about cancer research, but we also have become accustomed to hearing or reading about someone else getting cancer. A coach, a politician, a minister or someone else who is known in our community is diagnosed and we all hear about it. Cancer research continues to make breakthroughs, but it is far from being a curable illness. (Actually it is a series of illnesses, all described together as one: cancer). It pervades much of our society.

And what are we doing about it as a church? My dear friend, Anne Shaw Turnage, has focused on that question for decades. A cancer survivor herself, she knows the loneliness, the fears, the anxieties and the stress it can cause an individual and her or his family. She continues to ask the question, “What can the church do to minister to those who are facing cancer?” She does not think it essential that a denomination or church body underwrite a major program to do this (although she believes it would have value), but she does believe that we have responsibilities to our brothers and sisters to reach out to them with support, information and options as they travail this journey. By starting the program CanCare when she was in Houston, she has laid the groundwork for many other places to intentionally address this issue. She stepped up and has made a difference in thousands of lives by enabling the church to have a program of response when someone is diagnosed with cancer.

So, what is your cancer story? Here is mine.

Mary Talmage Rada with her husband Matt Schroer and their daughter Anna Grace.

The phone call from Boulder, Colorado, finally came at 1:30 a.m. We had been waiting for a number of hours to hear from our son-in-law. Our youngest daughter, Mary Talmage, had been having some unusual stomach pains and had gone to the doctor, who said she wanted to run some tests at the hospital. Mary Talmage, age 31, was healthy, took care of herself and was in tune with her body. She had been experiencing a strange stomachache for the past 24 hours, and thought she should check it out. She and her husband were getting ready to start their family and had set up an appointment the next day to discuss such matters as vitamins and proper care for becoming pregnant. We learned that later.

When she saw the doctor, she was told that there seemed to be some cysts on her ovaries, but that some other options needed to be ruled out, so she wanted Mary Talmage to go to the hospital and have some tests that night. She notified us about this plan, and we speculated that she might have gallstones or appendicitis or even a tubal pregnancy. But when the call came, we were completely taken off guard. Our son-in-law’s strong voice was trembling as he told us that his wife, our precious daughter, had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

My wife, Peggy, and older daughter, Margaret (who was at home with us at that time), and I had been on phones in different parts of the house, and we immediately headed into the living room, where we embraced one another and with vacant expressions of disbelief tried to breathe. We wanted to cry, but my recollection is that we were too numb to do so. Ovarian cancer at that time was akin to a death sentence. We had much to learn, but we knew it was bad – really bad.

Since it was the middle of the night we didn’t call anyone. But we didn’t sleep either. We thought through what we needed to do, the phone calls we needed to make and we prayed. Margaret went online and researched ovarian cancer. She already knew more about it than her parents did, but she tried to get a grip on the latest information. Over and over again we heard her slam her hand on the desk, and we knew she had read one more thing that was not positive about the likely prognosis.

The next days were a swirl of activity; in many ways they are blurred in my memory. I remember making a call to my sister, my wife’s brother and a very few close friends. Each of them was equally stunned. Just over a year before, we had all been together celebrating this young couple’s wedding and believing that a full and wonderful life was in their future. And I called our church.

Like wildfire the word spread – and we began receiving calls, visits and offers to assist us in one way or another. My employer, The American Red Cross in Richmond, Virginia, and Collegiate Schools, where Peggy taught, were extraordinary in their support and their affirmation of the fact that we needed to be with our daughter.

We got tickets for Peggy to fly immediately to Colorado, and I helped her pack her clothes and took her to the airport. I was going to church, and then into my office, and would fly out after I got some business matters addressed and a plan for my absence in place.

I decided to go to the early service at church, which was not my usual pattern. Our minister announced to the congregation that he had some very difficult news to share, and told of our daughter’s diagnosis. His voice broke, and he had to take a minute to regroup and continue with the announcements. Normally I loved seeing and talking with our church friends and stayed late to visit. But this day I slipped into the back row of the sanctuary, and left during the closing hymn. I wasn’t sure I could hold myself together if people started expressing their expressions of consolation and their personal grief with me.

Now fast forward. Our church, Mary Talmage’s church, other churches where we had been members, and many – so many – churches and synagogues where we had friends and family, began active prayer circles and actions of support for us and for our family. We got a different phone set up to answer messages, cards and letters of support arrived in our mailboxes and meals and visits were ever present. I went to visit a minister whom I loved who had lost his young adult son to cancer a few years earlier and we sat knee to knee praying and weeping. Mary Talmage’s church and the school where she taught brought meals and visits. And people all over the country who knew Mary Talmage started doing such thoughtful and loving acts. They sent cards, they sent hats she could wear when she lost her hair, they sent flowers and one group even went together and bought her a piano – because they knew that playing the piano was therapy for her. Countless acts of love were expressed, and we could actually feel that love embracing us and holding us up.

The good news for our family is that Mary Talmage survived. She focused on “wellness” and so did the church and others around her. We know that is not always the case; in fact, we know that with advanced ovarian cancer at that time, it was the exception. Mary Talmage and we, her family, believe firmly that one of the reasons she had the strength to maintain her sense of “self” during this time was due to the loving support of others.

Often we are asked to share some specific suggestions concerning helpful ways others served us during this time. Peggy and I made a list of those experiences that were most helpful:

Anna Grace, Margaret Rada, Matt and Mary Talmage and Peggy Rada – eating lunch on the author’s Montreat porch

1. Having friends call and come to see us. But, the calls can be overwhelming. We actually used an answering machine to accept calls rather than answering the phone, and listened to messages instead of engaging in actual conversations.

2. Determining a plan to bring in meals. It may seem that if we were not the ones getting treatment and having sickness, we should be fine doing our own cooking and meal planning. But it is amazing how exhausting it is just to get up in the morning and to be a presence with your loved one who is ill. Not having to think about meals for a while was a huge gift. The system that worked best for us one was where we had food brought in every other day (because there were usually leftovers from the day before and on occasions we might have a craving for a pizza or something specific). Having too much food can be a burden.

3. Hearing positive stories from others who had traveled the same journey was most encouraging.

4. In our case, we had people in many churches (not just Presbyterian) who had Mary Talmage and us on their prayer lists. Likewise this was the case in many other places where she or we had relationships.

5. In addition, there were prayer circles that gathered at a number of places when she was undergoing surgery or having first-time treatments. And the folks who participated would drop us a note letting us know that they were traveling the road with us.

6. If chemotherapy will cause loss of hair, a network of folks who sent cute, quirky, funny or symbolic hats or head covers was fun. One of our dear friends sent all of us in the family customized baseball caps that had been labeled TEAM SCHRADA, a combination of Mary Talmage and her husband’s last names. The caps were red – the color Mary Talmage chose to be her “healing color.”

7. People offered to help out with our professional and volunteer responsibilities. In some instances our paid positions might not be able to be handled by someone else, but people with skills can often find ways to step in for a short period of time and relieve a family member of normal activities. (On the other hand, if the person finds that doing his or her work is an important diversion at this time, don’t take it away from him or her).

8. Assistance in handling the mundane chores of life was helpful. People would run errands, deliver bills that needed to be paid, pick up and return library books, take out the trash and a multitude of other normal daily activities.

9. Not forcing the issue and making us talk was also a gift. There are times when it just doesn’t help to have people want you to tell the story of what was happening. One needs to be sensitive and to intuit if this is helpful or not. The big issue for those of us who wish to help others is that we not make their circumstances center around our own agendas (“Oh, I am devastated about what you are going through” or “ Let me tell you what I am dealing with right now”). One of the comments in a card sent to Mary Talmage, which became a joke in our family after we got over the shock of reading it, was when a person, with loving intent, wrote “trials will make you stronger.” That may be a legitimate statement of fact, but when one has just been diagnosed with a major illness, it isn’t helpful advice.

These are a few ideas. They are not comprehensive, and many other specific examples could be shared. But the purpose of this article is to ask you to start thinking about ways to help. Actually, the best people to answer the question of how to help are those who had cancer themselves. They are the ones who are best able to share the experiences that help or hurt. I remember one time when another of Mary Talmage’s friends was visiting her. This friend had also been diagnosed with cancer. The two of them sat on the porch, and I vividly remember them saying, “We are so tired of people telling us we are rays of sunshine. We are scared and whereas it is nice to be affirmed, we want to have people recognize the reality of our situations.”

So now, once again, I visit the question: What does your church do to reach out to those who are victims of cancer? Is it something your congregation might explore? Might there be resources you could provide to assist people in those circumstances? Could your members and friends of the church be assisted if you organized a deliberate effort to educate and equip members to know how and what to do when cancer strikes? It isn’t anything that takes a deep theological understanding of the principles of faith. It is a matter or doing and being what we are called to be as followers of Christ. People are hurting. We have been called to their side. Let us not forsake them.

heath-rada.jpgHeath Rada was the moderator of the 221st General Assembly. He lives in Montreat, North Carolina.