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Lent in the Shadow of Cancer

Lent in the Shadow of Cancer

Feb 10 2016
Three writers reflect on breast cancer, bodies, and resurrection hope.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with the admonition to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” But for women who journey through this season of lament after a devastating health diagnosis, their own bodies are daily reminders of their mortality. What do the death and resurrection of Jesus look like from the valley of the shadow?

Meet writers Anya Silver, Suzanne Underwood Rhodes, and Katherine James, three poets featured in my recent anthology Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide (Paraclete Press, January 2016). All have faced breast cancer.

Diagnosed in 2004 while pregnant with her son, Anya went through chemo, surgery, and radiation, assuming she was cured once it was all over. Years later, the cancer came back, this time in her bones and lungs. She has been on constant chemo or biological treatments since 2010. Though Anya is now considered stable, she lives with metastatic breast cancer, for which there is no cure. For Suzanne, it was April of 2014. Two days after Easter, the radiologist said, “I see a mass.” The diagnosis: an aggressive form of stage 2 breast cancer. A mastectomy was followed by a year of chemo, then radiation and further treatments. Meanwhile, Katherine was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer last July, undergoing a bilateral mastectomy one month later. She relies on hormone blocking therapy as long-term treatment.

These bare details don’t tell the whole story—particularly what it’s like to be women whose faith during times of struggle and pain leads them with Jesus to the cross. Poetry paints a richer picture, as in “Ash Wednesday” by Anya Silver from Between Midnight and Dawn:

How comforting, the smudge on each forehead:
I’m not to be singled out after all
From dust you came. To dust you will return.
My mastectomy, a memento mori,
prosthesis smooth as a polished skull.
I like the solidarity of this prayer,
the ointment thumbed into my forehead,
my knees pressing hard on the velvet rail.
If God won’t give me His body to clutch,
I’ll grind this soot into my skin instead.
If I can’t hold the flame that burned my breast,
I’ll char my brow; I’ll blacken my pores; I’ll flaunt
with ash this flaw in His creation.

Lent demands we slow down and reflect. So does cancer. So does poetry. When those three things come together in the crucible of one body, we as Christians are given a glimpse into what Christian Wiman calls “my bright abyss,” a harrowing and hallowing reminder of our human finiteness.

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