Lent in the Shadow of Cancer
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.
In what ways has your journey with cancer shaped your writing?
Katherine James: I had one friend say she thought cancer was my platform as a writer, which might sound inconsiderate, but at the time I thought, “I’ll take it. Why not?” The crazy-maker is that with Christ, my cancer—along with my writing—has brought me closer to life, not death. A life-threatening diagnosis can bring a new intensity to the world around us, kind of like a sweep of oxygen on a smoldering fire. Intense moments in life fuel all sorts of things, perhaps most especially writing.
Anya Silver: Cancer has most profoundly shaped my vocation as a writer by giving me what Emily Dickinson calls a “flood subject.” Writing about my experiences has become my deepest vocation. I don’t only write about cancer, of course, because I’m a whole person with a varied life, but because I have stage 4 cancer, it tints all aspects of my experiences, relationships, and faith. I know that my own death could reasonably occur at any time. For that reason, I feel a particularly strong pressure to write, to not put the process off. I am profoundly moved to leave a legacy for my son, and my words will be my primary legacy.
Suzanne Underwood Rhodes: I believe my spiritual focus is keener. The need to compete has faded. I absorb more of the marrow of words. I’m more conscious of the skull at my feet that darkens and deepens my work but also, like Yorick’s skull [in Shakespeare’s Hamlet], gives rise at times to mockery of death and disease, and this from the height of ultimate victory in Christ.
How has your understanding of Lent changed since your diagnosis? Is Good Friday different when you’re fighting for your life?
Suzanne: I know more now about denying the flesh since much has been altered or lost. Besides my missing breast, the drug that blocks estrogen causes joint pain and bone loss; now I have osteoporosis. My hair came back, but it’s frizzy and thinning. I’ve given up sweets and other foods I enjoy as defense against possible cancer recurrence. But the gains are greater. I see how much I don’t need. And Christ’s suffering is more present in my mind and heart. To think he took into his own tortured body my sin, my sorrow—my cancer.
Anya: I no longer deny myself anything during Lent. So much has been taken from me: my breast, my ovaries, the blessing of having another child, the possibility of living to be old, the false sense of security and safety in which I used to live. I’ve chosen to celebrate Lent, instead, by doing something additional, primarily by trying to be more aware of others’ needs and more selfless and attentive toward others.
Katherine: Good Friday kind of extended out to reach me, all the way back to July when I was diagnosed. I was forced, after a solid day of snot-blubber crying, to remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem, knowing and not knowing what was next, and especially his pain in Gethsemane. Jesus has allowed me the honor of riding that donkey with him, knowing and not knowing what’s next. At my worst moments, when fear begins to take over and I start prodding my armpits for lumps, I remember Christ’s fear, when he actually—for-real—sweat blood, and that it’s okay to feel that way, and so I’m okay with the cup because he was okay with the cup.
The Christian creeds state “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” What does Easter Sunday mean to you now?
Suzanne: I know my body is a creature of time; as I age, I see death coming and death is dreadful. But honestly, I see heaven better now. Recently, during Communion, I had a vision of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb—everyone seated at a table wrapped in golden light, laughing—it was glorious. Because of the Last Supper, there will be feasting in heaven.
Anya: To be completely honest, Easter is more difficult for me now than it used to be. The jump from the mourning of Good Friday to the happiness and abundance of Easter seems too quick for me. How can I be pastel and happy and hunting for eggs, when just a couple of days ago I was staring into the pit of death? What Easter means to me, since I still feel like I’m in the valley of the shadow of death, is that Christ is with me wherever I am; and that there exists a future after death when pain and suffering will disappear.
Katherine: Sunday has come; Sunday will come. We will rise with Christ. And a new body. A new body! This body is a collection of stitch scars and rubber inserts. I have no feeling where my breasts used to be. I hate this most of all, the lack of feeling. My resurrected body will once again be real. Easter celebrates this, and I can’t get to church fast enough.
If you could offer a word of encouragement for women who are fighting for their lives or for the lives of loved ones in the face of cancer, what would it be?
Anya: All of my advice is very clichéd—try to experience the joy and miraculousness of ordinary, everyday life. Soak in all the happiness and love that you can. Don’t ask yourself “why me?” Ask yourself “why not me?” You don’t know what will happen to you, but accept your life for what it is. Know that you are not alone and that God will never abandon you. Do what you love to do. Read. Fill your life with peace and beauty.
Katherine: Go back to the basics: Jesus loves me this I know…
Suzanne: My sister Robyn died of breast cancer at age 38, leaving behind two children, 11 and 13. On her grave marker is inscribed, “Live for Eternity.” For me, it’s meant an increased empathy toward others that’s led to a more genuine and tearful prayer life, as when I saw the brave souls in the treatment room month after month, when one frail woman said, shaking her head, “It isn’t fair.” All I know is that Jesus, the lover of every soul, was there and understood, understands it all.
Sarah Arthur is a frequent speaker for women’s events and the author or editor of 11 books, including Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide (Paraclete Press, January 2016).
Anya Silver's poem, "Ash Wednesday," is reprinted from the journal Christianity and Literature, Fall 2007. Used by permission.