As a religion professor, I spend my days talking—out loud and on paper—about the really big questions of life. My conversation partners, whether they are students, church members, friends, or family, are living those questions, sorting through inheritances, exploring the gaps, striving to be faithful to what they believe to be true. This profession of mine affords me the privilege of getting to talk about God in ways that are always informed by the questions, claims and wagers of others.
Then cancer came along and interrupted the conversation.
As an expert talker, I suddenly was no expert at all. A novice with a cancer story different from any other I knew. Breast cancer was the diagnosis, but my narrative didn't include finding a lump, removing a breast or losing any hair. A broken back triggered the stage IV cancer diagnosis and a lousy prognosis: five years out, 80 percent of those who have what I have are dead. My lack of expertise, unfamiliarity with the journey, and fear of what lay ahead conspired against me. Cancer left me tongue-tied, groping for words.
I sought out words from others more familiar with cancer than I. In one cancer memoir I read, the author writes about the scene in the exam room after she learns she has breast cancer. She looks at the doctor through her tears and whispers, "I'm sorry. I just don't know how to have cancer." The doctor puts his hand on her shoulder and says, "None of us knows how to have cancer."
Even the cancer experts don't know how to talk about cancer.
It's a humble and humbling claim, one I seek comfort in, both in terms of my own bewilderment over how to cope with cancer in my own life and in the lives of others, as well as the challenge of how to deal with those who mean well but offer little comfort at all.
I don't want to say it's all relative when it comes to cancer, but those of us with cancer experience and cope with the disease and its effects in wildly different ways. Some passionately protect their privacy; others are exceedingly public with the details. Some head to work every day during treatment; others' lives come to a halt. But something we all share is this: the havoc that cancer creates in our lives and in the lives of those who love—or simply interact with—us.
How, then, do you have cancer? And how do you talk about it?
On good days, when someone makes a comment I disagree with or says something insensitive or just plain wrong, I remind myself that none of us knows how to have cancer.
On good days, I realize a person who makes an inappropriate comment overcame the temptation to say nothing at all, which (theoretically) I appreciate. Rather than ignoring my cancer, this person—however awkwardly—is acknowledging cancer's invasion into my life.
On good days, I attempt to be gracious, even when the comments sting. I'm a professor; I adopt an educative role, explaining why their point of view differs from my own.
Not all days are good days.
In fact, many days with cancer are bad days. On those days, I'm not so magnanimous in my response. Rather than greeting awkward attempts at consolation with gravitas, I get offended, angry, hurt. On bad days, my retorts to off-the-mark comments often offend in return. Close friends and family tell me I have no reason to feel badly about my sharp replies. That it's not my job to take care of others and their misguided assumptions.
But it's not that easy: all of us continue to make mistakes when talking about cancer. The mistakes, the imperfections—what Christians might call "sin"—these are the reasons why I, as a Christian, am stuck on hope. As someone who can never quite get it right, I'm always hoping for more in this life—more chances to be gracious, kind, loving. Beyond these basic hopes, new hopes for this life have become important, too: hope for continued inactivity of the cancer in my body and in the bodies of so many others, for psychological and spiritual courage to live with this disease, for the gift of living long enough to see my daughters grow into adulthood.
In addition to hoping for more in this life, I also hope for more beyond. I hope that the promises of God are true: that there is more to life beyond this earthly one; and that in that life beyond there will be no more crying, no more dying, only light, only love, only joy.
I hope and pray that my future includes many more years in this life. But I realize that my future in this life may be brief. I struggle to accept it all with grace: the gifts and the grief. In the midst of the uncertainty, I live in hope: for what's before me and for the more beyond.
Deanna Thompson is professor of religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and author of Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Grace, from which this essay is excerpted. Read more at HopingforMore.com.