Saturday, September 5, 2015

When a Loved One Gets Cancer

Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: September 5th, 2015

"I have Stage One cancer."

Five words speak volumes. Five words strike fear. These five words are like five pebbles dropped into still waters, creating ripples of all kinds of emotions throughout the pond. In five words, all of our busyness and concerns flow back into perspective. Suddenly, life no longer is about jobs, reputation, or climbing the career ladder. Cancer is one of the most dreaded words ever to be uttered in any family. After hearing about it, what do we do?

This week, I heard news of at least two cases of people getting cancer. They were from people I know. It knocked me off my regular schedule. My prayer list just got longer. Like many people, I felt troubled. I didn't know what to do. Downhearted, I took it to the Lord in prayer. Tempted to ask why,
PSALM 13 (italics mine)
1How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
          How long will you hide your face from me?
2How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
          and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
          How long will my enemy (of cancer) triumph over me?3Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
          Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,4and my enemy (that cancer) will say, “I have overcome him,”
          and my foes (fears, anxieties, and pain) will rejoice when I fall.5But I trust in your unfailing love;
          my heart rejoices in your salvation.6I will sing the Lord’s praise,
          for he has been good to me.
Like many other psalms, this is a psalm of lament. It is a plea to God in prayer to help the downcast and the discouraged. It allows the heart to express to God the deepest longings of the heart, to share with God the hurts and the pains that one is going through. According to Walter C. Kaiser, ex-Professor of Old Testament and past President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Psalm 13 is the lament of an individual who was hurting and suffering. There are at least 39 other psalms that can be classified as lament psalms. Instead of succumbing to continuous trumpeting of victorious songs and beating of the happy drums, lament psalms are used to capture the profound essence of what it means to be human. It makes one real and honest enough to confront the things that really matter. Kaiser adds:
"Suffering does not go away merely if we pretend it does not exist; it does exist and it does continue to hurt and cause suffering. Nor is there any sort of magic pill that can suddenly remove the heavy weight that suffering lowers on mortals’ spirits and shoulders. But the most comforting news is that where there is pain, grief, and hurt, there is God!....   The reason for suffering that is the focus of these laments can be attributed to three main causes: self, an enemy, or the Lord himself. In the lament, pain, grief, and suffering are given the dignity of language." (Walter C. Kaiser, "The Laments of Lamentations" in The Psalms, edited by Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard Jr, Moody Press, 2013, p112-4)

If we lack the knowledge of what to do. If we don't seem to know how to react. Perhaps, this week's article can provide some tips. Let me put forth just one word: Understanding.

A) Understand What Sufferers are Experiencing

Let us hear from what some cancer patients are saying. Regina Brett was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 1998. She writes how she felt:

"When you hear the word cancer, it’s as if someone took the game of Life and tossed it in the air. All the pieces go flying. The pieces land on a new board. Everything has shifted. You don’t know where to start." (Regina Brett)
Credit: Regina Brett

"Some days, 24 hours is too much to stay put in, so I take the day hour by hour, moment by moment. I break the task, the challenge, the fear into small, bite-size pieces. I can handle a piece of fear, depression, anger, pain, sadness, loneliness, illness. I actually put my hands up to my face, one next to each eye, like blinders on a horse." (Regina Brett)

"We all have a personal pool of quicksand inside us where we begin to sink and need friends and family to find us and remind us of all the good that has been and will be." (Regina Brett)

Karen Sepucha, a Harvard Medical School professor who had heard and encountered many cases of people hearing bad news about their health said this:

"By the time people face cancer, they’ve usually faced other major issues in their life and made other difficult decisions. What I have found is that, sometimes, when they get into the medical community, they forget all of that. So people who have pretty advanced ways of taking care of their families and making good decisions all of sudden get to the doctor’s office and lose all of the skills that allow them to question things, get other opinions—things that they would do in any other aspect of their life." (Karen Sepucha)

J. Todd Billings, a Professor with terminal cancer has this to say about letting the psalms enable us to express how we feel:

"While the Psalms reflect a very broad range of human emotions, it is not just a human book about human emotions. Praying the Psalms brings our whole heart before the face of God, reorienting our own vision toward God and his promises. As Augustine describes with particular insight, the Psalms are given to us as a divine pedagogy for our affections—God’s way of reshaping our desires and perceptions so that they learn to lament in the right things and take joy in the right things." (J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015, p38)

One of my fellow Regent friends who died in 2007 of breast cancer said this powerfully.

"Whether I stay or go, I'm still alive! This is not a tragedy!" (Maureen Rose Leary-Morley)
Somehow, cancer patients have the most profound things to say and to share.

B) Understand What God is Saying

If God is truly Lord, we must give God the benefit of all doubts. As much as we all want healing and immediate answers, we must acknowledge that only God has the big picture throughout time and space. Who are we to insist that God does all our wills? Do we know enough of the world to make such demands? If so, who is God? Are we God? Absolutely not.

In praying, one of the most difficult things is to learn that if we say we trust God, we must also be prepared to receive ANY answer from God. God is not a Yes-God who dishes out wishes like the genie in the celestial bottle. God is Sovereign and can answer a Yes, a No, a Maybe, or even a Later. Trust is about putting our feet firmly on the promises of God. It means relying totally on the Truth of God's Word. It means learning to live faithfully in spite of what's troubling us, not until the troubles leave us. Understand that in every suffering, there is always something God is teaching us about the world, about the brokenness of life, an about our own lives.

Unlike many of us who have never experienced the pain of cancer, we often pay lip service to songs like "I Surrender All" or "Lord I Give You My Heart." We utter the words but our hearts remained distant from spiritual reality. We don't really know what surrender and whole-hearted giving means until terminal illness strikes home. Are we prepared? Will our family know how to react? God already knows. The trouble is very much our spiritual receptors. For many, the pain of suffering may very well be the megaphone of God sounding out what we truly need.

C) Understand What You Yourself Are Experiencing

How do we respond when a loved one gets cancer? My earlier two points involve understanding what the patients are going through. Don't be too quick to jump to conclusions. Don't rush into immediate medication or chemotherapy. There are lots of alternatives and opinions. Even finding the right doctor can be challenging too. Recognize that it is a long and difficult road. Learn as much as possible about the illness. Find out the alternatives about care. Consider the finances. For me, one of the most important is not to let the science or the solution-seeking separate us from the true emotions of our loved ones.

One of the best ways we can do is pray. The second is to care and to share of our lives with them, and they with us. There is no better comfort than to have friends coming together in unity and in prayer. I believe that a burden shared is a burden halved. Don't be shy about sharing the ups and downs of one's erratic moments. As long as the words are real, don't worry too much about grammatical mistakes or irrational feelings. Be real. Be present. Be prayerful.

One last thing. Why not write a lament to God? Like the psalmist in Ps 13?

THOUGHT: "Emotional distress often goes unaddressed during the early stages of diagnosis and treatment—a time when, ironically, intervention may be most beneficial. Dana B. expressed regret that the offer of psychological assistance didn’t arrive until she was done with treatment: “At the end of my treatment, there was a referral card for a psychologist. I felt like it was a little late in the game. If anything was missing, it was probably the encouragement to seek psychological healing. It would be helpful for someone to say, ‘You are going to experience a lot of these feelings. You may want to hook up with someone who specializes in this area.’”  (John Leifer, After You Hear It's Cancer, Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015, p101)


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