John Paul II’s Teaching Helps Cancer Patient’s Mind-Body-Soul Battle

Woman finds healing insights in the theology of the body teaching as she carries her cross of cancer.

A giant poster showing an image of Pope John Paul II clinging to a crucifix is seen in Krakow’s central square on April 7, 2005, following the death of the Polish Pope, who taught on ‘the salvific meaning of suffering.’
A giant poster showing an image of Pope John Paul II clinging to a crucifix is seen in Krakow’s central square on April 7, 2005, following the death of the Polish Pope, who taught on ‘the salvific meaning of suffering.’ (photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP via Getty Images; detail)

Whether she’s leading a hike in a national park or facilitating a study group, Jen Messing often finds herself talking with youth and adults about the union of body and soul.

Messing, 50, has tried to bring real-life context into this teaching, which she calls the “body-soul combo,” during the past several decades she has taught about the theology of the body (TOB) — drawn from Pope St. John Paul II’s series of 129 audiences on the human person — through her Minneapolis-based nonprofit, Into the Deep

It became much more “real life” when Messing was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer two years ago. Together with other TOB teachings, it’s helping her recognize that cancer affects more than just her physical body. 

“A big insight of body-soul connection was when I realized I can’t separate them as if one [aspect] is struggling and the others are not,” said Messing, who, as the nonprofit’s founder and executive director, helps participants in outdoor and indoor retreats and other programs see their identity and purpose as persons made in God's image. 

“They’re all working together, and what really hit me is that in the beginning we were made [as] body-soul combo, and we were made to be full of grace.” 

As she considered the difficult options related to her illness in Eucharistic adoration at her Minneapolis parish, Messing felt that the Lord wanted her to pause and ask questions. 

The doctors she consulted told her that cancer and the body’s response to it are different for each person. Recalling Pope St. John Paul II’s TOB teaching that each human person is unique and unrepeatable, she realized that her own cross of cancer is unlike anyone else’s.

As both a physician and adjunct theology professor, Dr. John Travaline, who is not treating Messing, said he sees each person as a created imago dei — image of God. Beyond a person’s visible “physicalness,” he appreciates their social, spiritual and psychological components. In medicine, he said, “We know well all kinds of disruptions in one domain — psychology and stress and whatnot — begets or accelerates physical illness.” 

Travaline, a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, practices pulmonary and critical care medicine and is a professor of thoracic medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia. He also teaches Catholic studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. 

Not all physicians emphasize multidimensional healing, he said. “But when you find physicians and other healers who are going to really look at the person in a holistic way and really listen to what they are saying, the author of the language of the body is the person,” said Travaline, who has studied and written about TOB.

Since receiving her diagnosis, Messing has taken a holistic approach. 

“Catholics need to examine and reclaim understanding of how the body works and the natural ways God put at our disposal to heal,” she said. 

She has experienced deeper, ongoing healing through the anointing of the sick, daily Communion and prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, she said.

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve enjoyed full integration of body and soul as they lived in a state called “original innocence and unity,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote in TOB. 

They were free from sin, and their bodies were in perfect balance, said Monica Ashour, president, content creation and international speaker for TOBET: Theology of the Body Evangelization Team, a TOB educational resource provider based in Irving, Texas.

Because our bodies also reveal our entire person, Christ’s healing affects more than one part of us, Ashour said. “When Christ heals us … he heals us emotionally; it’s also the spiritual part; it’s also the bodily part.” 

Since the Fall, humanity has struggled to regain that integration, Messing said. “When we realize there’s an interplay here, that becomes a picture of our whole person struggling with the Fall and trying to regain integration … in a God-given way.”

As much as she’s able, Messing plans to continue leading retreats in state and national parks. The peace Messing feels is not with avoidance or lack of suffering. Since each person’s cross is unique and unrepeatable, we can choose to make a unique gift of our suffering in the world, she said, adding that she’s letting the Lord show her how her suffering can be a gift to others. 

In Pope St. John Paul II’s 1984 apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris, written after he was seriously wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt, he wrote that in Christ’s messianic program, the program of the kingdom of God, “suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a ‘civilization of love.’ In this love, the salvific meaning of suffering is completely accomplished and reaches its definitive dimension.”

Our suffering can unleash love, said Ashour, referring to the Pope’s teaching. “Because each of us is unique and we love others in our own unique way, the unleashing of love through suffering has to be unique and unrepeatable as well.”

Through the gift of our own particular suffering we as believers can participate in Christ’s sufferings and be a light for others — something Ashour said she has experienced through Messing. “I’m able to see a different aspect of Jesus my Lord because of her.”

As Messing continues to let the Lord guide her while fighting cancer, she’s remembering that her ultimate goal is being united with him in heaven. 

“Do we look at it as, ‘Well, this is just the way it is,’ or do we say, ‘I am in the middle of the most epic battle/love story/adventure ever, and I choose to participate, and I choose to know what’s going on?’” she said. “I choose to be an unrepeatable part of this and to be a gift in the world.”

Through that adventure, Messing added, “What do you have but to throw yourself into the arms of the Lord? If you put yourself in God’s hands, he will not drop you.”