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When Breast Cancer Leaves You Grasping for Words

As a religion professor, I can talk about the big questions of life. Until now.

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 ...

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