There Are Two Ways to Survive Cancer

According to an early Christian legend, St. Agatha received a vision of St. Peter and an angel while she was in prison, and was miraculously healed. St. Agatha is venerated today as the patron saint of breast cancer patients. (Image: Alessandro Turchi, “Saint Agatha Attended by Saint Peter and an Angel in Prison”, c. 1640)
According to an early Christian legend, St. Agatha received a vision of St. Peter and an angel while she was in prison, and was miraculously healed. St. Agatha is venerated today as the patron saint of breast cancer patients. (Image: Alessandro Turchi, “Saint Agatha Attended by Saint Peter and an Angel in Prison”, c. 1640) (photo: Public Domain)

I told a friend that I feel as if I’ve been away. I feel like someone who has wintered over at the South Pole and is now peeking from behind doors at the newcomers who’ve arrived with the sun. 

In truth, I have been to a different continent, but it is a continent of the mind and spirit, of enclosure and obsessive focus. The topography has nothing to do with the unexplored mountain ranges and rivers that I associate with the idea of a new continent. The unexplored areas of this new land were hospital rooms and surgical suites, doctor’s offices and pathology results. 

I been fighting for my life, just as surely as any gladiator in an arena, any soldier in battle. I have been, like they are, on strange soil, someone else’s territory, guarding my back as well as my front as I sought purchase on the shaky ground under my feet, as I fought to find the way out of the nightmare. 

Cancer is a fight to the death with killer cells that are, in fact, part of ourselves. Nothing will kill cancer that will not also kill us. Because cancer is us. It is our own cells from our own body, gone rogue. Something happened. Either our defenses weakened, or the cell was overwhelmed with a toxicity that almost, but didn’t quite, kill it, and it changed. The change turned it into a terrifying chimera of its old self, a frightening example of what happens to life when the breaks are taken off and one cell — one solitary cell — can multiply and migrate without limit. 

Cancer is the ultimate predator. It is the ultimate parasite, taking up ever larger portions of the nutrients and space our bodies need to keep us alive. Cancer is also the ultimate suicidal maniac, that always ends up killing its host, which is to say, itself. Cancer is suicide by greed at the cellular level. 

I suppose that makes it a rather elegant metaphor for the politics of greed which threaten to destroy our great nation. But that is a topic for another post. 

Today I want to discuss the stunned, waking-up-from-sleep aftermath of cancer treatment. 

Make no mistake about it. Cancer shoves you, ready or not, into a full-on fight for your life. Given that the politics of greed I mentioned have infected both cancer research and treatment to a frightening extent, it is also often a fight for your life against your own doctors. 

That is what I encountered. I’ll write about it extensively in the future. I’m still a bit too stunned and too early in the survivor process to deal with it now. 

I resented the word “survivor” at first. After all, no one “survives” cancer, at least not with surety. It can come back at any time and when it does, chances are that it will come back meaner and more advanced than the last time we saw it. 

Now, I understand the word survivor differently. I feel like a survivor, but of a decidedly unheroic, uncertain and battered sort. I am not the heroine, striding over the top of a hill to claim my victory crown. I am rather, a shipwreck victim, washed up on a beach, half-conscious and too exhausted to lift her face out of the sand. 

The television dramas about breast cancer lie. You do not ring that bell and dance your way out of the hospital into a glittery new now. Cancer treatment is brutal and devastating. Every treatment takes things from your body that you can never get back again. 

You will improve from that the shattered weepy mess you are when you first wash up on the survivor’s beach. But you will never be the same as you were before.  Your body is changed, and for the worse, by the treatments. 

What remains is the question of how the cancer has changed you spiritually. Notice I did not say how it has changed you emotionally. That’s because you emotional state is only a by-product of your spiritual condition. 

The same cancer ordeal that has ravaged your body can put you in a place so close to God that you can feel His presence every moment. The same cancer that weakens and batters you can dissolve the barriers of could/should/ought that lie between you and your Maker. You can feel the everlasting arms around you and know that you are loved, cherished and protected there forever. 

There are two ways to survive cancer. One of them is, at best, temporary. That is the physical survival. You may actually be able to walk away from cancer and never see it again. You will not know if that is true. You had cancer. The cancer can come back. That is your new normal. Even if you never have cancer again, one day you will die of something else. 

That makes any victory over cancer — which is in truth a victory over death — a temporary thing. 

The other way to survive cancer is to survive it spiritually. I have personally known people who were embittered and angry with God over their cancer or that of a family member. I have also seen people try to grapple with this ugly beast alone, without God. 

Some people wall themselves into their ideologies of unbelief and self-worship and will not allow anything, even a fight to the death with a brutal foe like cancer, force them to put down their guard against God. This brittle holding out against the love of God is a tragedy of pride. 

I’ve seen people so afraid of the cancer that they spent their time wailing and screaming at God for help and never heard the small still voice of grace resounding in their souls. I’ve known others who have been schooled in the punishing name-it-and-claim-it heresy, trying to pretend that cancer is satan and they can renounce him/it with a few Bible verses. 

Ironically, the truth of it all is in a Bible verse. It is one of the shortest verses in the book. Cease striving and know that I am God. 

That’s all you have to do. Given how sick you are and what you are going through, it is often all that you can do. Just love Jesus and let Him love you. Just trust Him and know that, as scripture says, He is able to keep that which you have entrusted to Him against that day. 

You don’t have to do anything except trust. Just let God love you through this and you will wash up on that shore, battered and ravaged physically but stronger than you have ever been spiritually. 

No matter what the cancer does to you physically — and there are no easy ways out of cancer — you will thrive spiritually, which means that you will thrive emotionally, and in all the ways that are essentially and forever you. 

It does not matter if the cancer kills you. You will survive. And you will sink to your knees before the throne of God in awe and love that the language we use in this life has no words to describe. 

I feel like I’ve been away; as if I’ve been to a dark continent where the sun doesn’t shine and exhaustion grinds you into the ground even while you sleep. That is cancer treatment. 

It can ravage your soul while it’s ravaging your body. It can put you through the torments of hell as it shoves you face first into the existential reality of your own mortality. Or — and this is the miracle — it can free you so that God lifts you up to heaven, even while you are in this life. 

I told a friend of mine a while back that I was being forced to die to large parts of this life even while I was still living it. Now, I’m slowly putting one foot in front of the other, moving carefully in the gray half-light of this new dawn, trying to understand who I am today. 

Cancer is not going to kill me today. That is all I have. It is also all I need. 


That and the grit of sand on my face from this beach where I’ve washed ashore. I’ve survived. I am alive physically and spiritually. 

But I am not the same person I was before I walked this cancer road. My first task is to discover what that means.

Sister Scholastica Radel (left) and Mother Abbess Cecilia Snell of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, discuss the recent exhumation of the order's foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, in an interview with ‘EWTN News In Depth’ on May 30 at their abbey in Gower, Missouri.

‘Sister Wilhelmina Is Bringing Everyone Together’: Nuns Share Their Story in Exclusive TV Interview on EWTN

On ‘EWTN News In Depth,’ two sisters shared details of their remarkable discovery — revealing, among other things, that Sister Wilhelmina’s body doesn’t exhibit the muscular stiffness of rigor mortis and how the traditional habit of their African American foundress also is surprisingly well-preserved — and reflected on the deeper significance of the drama still unfolding.