Sunday, April 12, 2009

In Cancer, a Deeper Faith

By Dana Jennings

We are about to enter a holy few days for Jews and Christians. Passover starts at sundown tomorrow, and Easter is Sunday. But then again, when you’re a cancer patient, each day is a holy day – no matter what your beliefs.

I converted to Judaism five years ago, after decades spent stumbling toward God. That faith has helped sustain me this past year, from the diagnosis of my prostate cancer, through surgery, and through radiation and hormone treatment when it was learned that I had an aggressive cancer.

I am not a fool. I am a patient with Stage T3B cancer and a Gleason score of 9. I need the skills and the insights of the nurses and doctors who care for me. But they don’t treat the whole man. Medicine cares about physical outcomes, not the soul. I also need — even crave — the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study.

And it’s a powerful thing to know that others are praying for your return to health. My faith reminds me that I am not alone, that I am part of a larger whole, part of an ancient tradition and a timeless narrative. Disease often makes us feel cut off from community, even from ourselves, and faith helps defy that sense of isolation.

One of our cultural verities about serious illness is that it often challenges our faith. But for me, if anything, having cancer has only deepened it, heightened it.

I have spent the past year in the dark ark of cancer, and there is no question that I have become a new man. I’ve been granted a wisdom that only arrives at the rugged confluence of middle age and mortality. And I know, soul deep, that I have not been cut open, radiated, and tried physically and spiritually so that I can merely survive, become a cancer wraith. Since my diagnosis — after shaking off the initial shock — I have kept asking myself, in the context of my belief: What can this cancer teach me?

The most surprising thing I’ve learned is that cancer can be turned toward blessing. Through the simple fact of me telling my cancer stories on this blog, many of you readers, in turn, have told your own stories. And that mutual sharing of our tales has changed my life for the good. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Life is not meaningful … unless it is serving an end beyond itself, unless it is of value to someone else.”

None of us would choose to have cancer. But getting this unexpected mortality check has deepened my appreciation of and connection to this life. Each moment holds out the promise of revelation.

Cancer, like faith, urges us toward the essential in our lives, toward love and kindness and paying attention to the smallest, smallest detail. We suddenly understand that ice chips spooned into a parched mouth, that being able to simply urinate, are gifts, the kinds of ordinary gifts that make up our lives.

So, yes, Easter and Passover beckon with their vernal tales of exile, renewal and redemption. I found out exactly one year ago today that I had prostate cancer. But I won’t know for a very long time whether I’ve been truly passed over.

Whatever happens, though, I’m ready.

No comments: