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Cancer initiates a wide spectrum of treatment approaches.
Blood is drawn, and then we are scanned, operated on, injected, and burned.
We can be pumped with hormones, have body parts removed, and we see specialist after specialist.
It can send the toughest of us into mental breakdown.
Before I go any further, please allow me to introduce myself. I am known for my writing, mostly of a sort of Christian or spiritual bent. I think I can hear your eyes rolling right now. I mention my background to give context to my current ground. I consider myself to be a person of faith, holding tight to certain principles of that faith.
But, that being said, I have, over the years, evolved, morphed, and changed—like most of us out there. Some people would say I have even “strayed.”
However, it’s not that simple.
I had lived a life repeatedly smacking into hypocritical walls and a lack of compassion within a religious setting. For years, I reached out for help and support concerning both my eating disorder struggles and the abuse from my childhood.
Once, I had one pastor who, upon my request for help stated, “Counseling is not really something I do. I suggest you talk to someone else.”
You mean, like a pastor?!
Yeah, that’s typically the stuff I encountered. “Church hurt” is often how it’s described, and man, was I ever!
So, now, the dilemma. After distancing myself from “the church,” I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now what?
I went through testing, waiting, freaking out, and getting my mastectomy and radiation treatments. I saw specialists; I made tough decisions. I prayed—I begged and whined.
And, after doing this for a while, I cautiously enquired about the chaplain associated with the cancer care department in my clinic. I called her extension and left a rambling message about my concerns that my version of spirituality and her version may not be able to co-exist. I had done the cliché church program. I was not looking to do that now. Would she, could she, accept that?
I was skeptical, because when most of us hear the word, “chaplain,” we automatically think of a straightlaced pastor in an equally straightlaced dogma.
It can be intimidating, as, in our very gritty cancer experiences, our words and responses often appear to be less than “Holy.” What if we let an F-bomb accidentally drop? What if we’re not “cleaned up enough” for the chaplain? What if we’re too sad, too anxious, or too angry, because of our cancer and life experiences, to withstand the scripture solutions doled out to us?
So, now, not only do we have cancer, but we also have additional fear and guilt added on to it?
Yeah, sign me up for that.
Let’s call the chaplain I reached out to, “Serenity.” It’s not her real name, but it might as well be. The woman is peaceful.
Serenity returned my voicemail and we spoke about how she and I would approach things. I told her about my denominational background, how life had taken me through some twists and turns. I told her I had a significant faith experience that sent me moving away from my denominational start and into the land of the megachurches. From that place, I encountered tremendous growth, opportunities…and also being “church hurt.” I saw, firsthand, the priority image, money, and hierarchy played; often, they were emphasized to the detriment of helping “the flock.”
I was explaining this to Serenity and she was nonchalant about it. No ruffled feathers of panic like I was used to. She told me she operated from a universal approach, all-inclusive. After all, cancer patients come in all sizes, beliefs, and faiths. She herself, had roots in Catholicism. But, she admitted that, over the years, she has “branched out.”
Okay, so, we’re branching. I think this could work.
And, since that initial phone call, Serenity and I have been branching out on many cancer-related themes. She has the personal experience to back it up; she’s a breast cancer survivor, herself.
We have talked a lot about the fear, the uncertainty. She knows I’m “high strung” and, over our conversations, has encouraged me to locate my “anchors,” the solid, dependable structures that exist for me whenever fear, change, and painful things occur. Writing is one of those anchors.
Likewise, she’s advised me to keep “a short horizon.” I’m to focus on the here and now more than the weeks, months, and years that intimidate me. This is a struggle; I’m a planner. I’m also a catastrophizer. Chicken Little, sky is falling, let’s build a cancer bunker kind of stuff.
(I’m a great party guest.)
And, throughout our sessions, she has always respected my boundaries. That’s a biggie for me, having come from childhood abuse and toxic relationships. “No” is my close friend.
One meaningful incident illustrating her respect of my limits involved a phone conversation that was particularly intense. In our past meetings, she and I would typically close with prayer. And I was okay with that…typically.
But this conversation was too heavy. I felt I needed to end our conversation; I requested that she not pray with me over the phone, but on her own. I wasn’t “anti-prayer.” I was anti-further upsetting myself. Things were just too intense for me. Her response?
“I’m glad you said that.”
She wasn’t going to try and strong-arm me into Albrecht Dürer’s “Praying Hands?” She respected me, in my less-than-Kumbaya mental state and supported the truth of that moment?
Uncharted spiritual territory!
This locked it in for me; she and I could continue talking. There was no judging, no coercion. There was no, “you’re wrong and evil; repent, sinner!”
No. There was, “I will support you; tell me what that support looks like.”
And, I think that’s what true chaplaincy should look like. It doesn’t come with ecclesiastical robes, a priest’s collar, or even the mention of a denominationally-specific incarnation of God. It is support and the recognition that yes, there is something at work, larger than us, freeing us from needing to control everything (as much as our control freak selves fight that).
But it always comes back to support and a listening ear, not a judging mouth or mind.
Spirituality can, indeed, be a large piece of cancer recovery: prayer, meditation, a code of conduct we follow. The chaplain experience can be a bridge between full-on religion and practical life coach.
And, each of us needs to take some time to figure out what that means for us. Cancer or no cancer.
Indeed, on a grander scale, it’s about the vicissitudes of ever-changing life. We all experience change, death, loss, pain, upset in plans—chaplaincy can speak to all of it. What are we wanting? What are we needing? It’s not about proselytizing; it’s about genuinely adjusting to our humanity, in all of our brutal complexity, with another fellow heartbeat. Sometimes, that involves simply sitting, with no immediate solutions, and being aware we are heard, seen, and cared for.
Is this the true religion? I don’t know. But is it truly help?
Yes, I believe it is.