Ten years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It arrived hard on the heels of a painful divorce and many subsequent losses: my home, friendships, church community. An excruciating disintegration of much of who I thought I was.
I was on the less serious end of things, never in fear for my life, yet it was still disruptive, unwelcome, at times scary, exhausting, and lonely (socially isolating!). It was also physically challenging, with trauma to my breasts and the loss of my hair , both of which I had always felt confident about! In short, I wasn’t in the market for another Big Life Experience. My vanity was severely bruised, as well as my self image as a healthy, resilient person, and I mostly wanted things (i.e. my body) to go back to how they were. I didn’t want to be changed!
But change me it did, in ways I feel grateful for now. In some sense divorce had broken me (cancer almost certainly arrived as my body’s response to the stress of that), and cancer put me back together, arriving as an uninvited Dark Guest, bringing moments of great grace and gift, a sense of being on a long, ironically healing, retreat. All in all, a severe mercy.
All this has come to mind as we adjust to this lockdown, this sudden disruption of our lives and world. I have been recalling some of the things that in amidst the chaos and uncertainty, helped and consoled me during that 8-month (re)treatment:
- A very early, initial (pre-diagnosis) curiosity about what this experience (actually, this lump) had come to teach me, and wanting to be awake and open to that. I wobbled hugely on this as the months progressed, but it has always seemed to me to be a trustworthy ‘touchstone’ that I have often recalled.
- My connection with friends and family. Ten years ago, it was by email with an eventual list of 90 people (small fry in these Instagram days!). These contacts, and people’s kindness, were a lifeline and a needed reminder that in my desolating circumstances I was loved.
- Writing: I loved writing and crafting my record of what was happening, a ‘breast cancer log’ sent out to those friends and family. I’ve recently re-read it and it made me laugh and cry, and reminded me of how helpful it was for me to write it all down.
- Reading: I had little energy or concentration for high literature, but two books stand out: Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, the essential thesis of which is that you have a much greater chance of coming through difficult experiences (in his case Auschwitz), well and with resilience, if you can find meaning in them. A bit like my curiosity about what my cancer had come to teach me, and my on-going search for ‘God in all things’. Also Sara Maitland’s ‘A Book of Silence’ that introduced me to, and gave me a hunger for, the gifts of solitude and silence.
- A contraction of life, a gratitude for small things: the tree in blossom outside my bathroom window; a short walk in the park; tea with friends.
- A connection with whatever it is we call God – something more, something both beyond myself and deeply within myself. I had a general sense of something Tender accompanying me through it all, and in addition I was given one moment of something more numinous: lying alone in a hospital treatment room awaiting my initial biopsy, feeling scared and lonely, I suddenly felt a quiet but certain sense of a loving Presence with me, an ‘all shall be well’ assurance. It came unannounced and unexpected, and felt entirely trustworthy – another ‘touchstone’ that sustained me.
So as we settle in for who knows how long, I want to slow down and make choices that nourish me: creativity, good reading, connection (now with Zoom) with friends and family around the world; connection with nature, and silence – and connection with God in all those things. I want to let this time change me, teach me, soften me (my heart, not my middle!). Whether or not we ever know the great meaning of this, each day I can make meaningful choices.
Alongside that, I continue the work these experiences prepared me for, as a spiritual director and therapist, offering space for people to share their vulnerabilities, fears and joys as they navigate these strange days. Some of the people I talk with are more at the ‘coal face’ of this situation, and I can only imagine what that is like. My contribution is small, but it’s one I feel privileged to be able to provide.
*A Severe Mercy is the title of a book by Sheldon Vanauken that I read 30 years ago and the phrase has stayed with me.