For the last several months I have been keeping a regular appointment with an oncologist. I’m not the one receiving care, however. My friend has lung cancer, and I have been accompanying her as she receives weekly doses of chemotherapy.
These cancer treatments are administered in an “infusion laboratory.” If you have never been in one, and I hope you never have the occasion, they are all fairly uniform in design and purpose. The “lab” is a simple room with comfortable, leather lounge chairs lining the walls. Each chair has an infusion pump that pushes what everyone prays is cancer-killing compounds through the body.
Competent, smiling nurses respond to the needs of the patients and the beeping machinery. Doctors float in and out of the room as needed. Faces grimace over the prospects of yet another needle stick; cancer war stories are told and retold; and blankets are handed out with sips of ginger ale and nibbles of saltine crackers to ease the nausea.
There are those tucked into those chairs who look well, and others who are obviously ill. There are those who have been making pilgrimage to the lab for years, and those who are newbies. Some are alone, and some are with friends or family. Some discretely hide their baldness and emaciation, and others wear the rigors of treatment like a badge of honor.
And when it comes to coping, the differences are manifold as well. Some are in shock over their prognosis. Some are depressed. Some have a stoic, Zen-like acceptance. Some keep smiling no matter what, and some are as mad as hell – at life, God, physicians – at anything or anyone who can be held responsible.
Then some patients have all these feelings simultaneously, jumbled together at once. Don’t be fooled: Coping with a major illness is not as orderly as textbooks led us to believe. It is a hot mess of total emotion when facing one’s personal mortality, and everyone who stands on that precipice feels everything at one point or another in the process – and sometimes these are all felt at once.
But for all the compare and contrast of these unique individuals, they are all held together by the solidarity of their battle. Through the blood, sweat, and tears they fight; they fight like gladiators in the arena. And gladiators they are, for they are desperately fighting for their lives. More so, they are fighting for what it means to be human.
As a hospital chaplain and pastor, I have visited countless bedsides, cancer wards, and infusion labs; never have I grown accustomed to the brutalizing effects of the disease on both body and spirit. Cancer, like few other afflictions, does more than “steal, kill, and destroy” the physique. It attempts to deprive a person of his or her dignity. It endeavors to smother the internal flame and erase the spirit of the one who suffers.
So those fighting cancer (and other horrible illnesses) are not just fighting for a few more years. They are fighting for what it means to be a human being. They are marshalling all their grit and resilience (and something that borders on elegance), not just to stay alive physically, but to guard their very souls.
Oddly, this reminds me of legendary pacifist Pastor A.J. Muste. During the Vietnam War he stood in front of the White House night after night with a lit candle, in persistent and peaceful protest. A reporter asked him, “Do you really think that standing here with a candle can change the world?” Paraphrasing, he answered with a smile, “I don’t stand here with my candle to change the world. I stand here to keep the world from changing me.”
Those in the arena understand that physical life may be taken from them, but by God’s grace, no disease will ever rob them of their humanity, their identity, of their innate worth as unique creations of the Almighty. They understand that the fight may not change their prognosis, but the fight prevents the disease from changing them.