God and Cancer

Birds

by Belle Piazza

We hear it on a semi-regular basis here at The Colon Club. “If there was a God, why would he let me suffer like this?” I don’t have an answer to this question – none of us do. We all struggle to understand the why behind this disease. What strikes me though, is the selfishness of the question. Not that I haven’t asked this very question myself; I have, many times. People who have held fast to their faith their entire lives suddenly question the presence of a higher being when THEY are struck by cancer. We tend to live in our own little bubbles and naively believe that if we live a good life, do good to others, walk a straight and narrow path, eat right and exercise that we will be exempt from all the evils and suffering in the world. God evidently has a different plan. A childhood friend of mine who attended Catholic High School told me that during his years there he was asked to draw a picture of God. He drew a light switch. “People turn the switch on when they need to turn to God” he explained. “And when things are going well for them, they flip the switch off”. Somehow we can come to terms with suffering when it’s the “other person” but when the “other person” is us, our illusions of how the world works are suddenly shattered.

There are those who live a long, healthy and happy life, free from suffering and pain; but I really believe they are the exception to the rule. If you take the time to get to know a person; any random person; and peel back the layers of their life, you’re likely to reveal that at some point, they have endured pain and suffering to one extent or another.

It’s easy to get caught up in our own little micro world and be oblivious to the suffering of others. Some say they can’t think of anything worse than having cancer. I can think of plenty. It’s sick, I suppose, to find comfort in knowing that others suffer more than I do – but sick or not, it helps me to keep things in perspective. A few years back a young family – husband, wife, baby and young child were driving through Oregon. It was winter and they took a side road as a short cut. It was a road that should have been closed. They got stuck in the snow. No one knew they were there. Eventually the husband set out to find help. After a day or so he froze to death. The following day a rescue party found the wife and children. Some nights as I lie in bed trying to sleep, knowing my husband and kids are all safe and warm, I think of this poor family and how horrific this man’s last few hours must have been. As he lay there in the snow, freezing cold, knowing that he was dying, pondering the fate of his family, do you suppose he wondered where God was?

It helps us sort things out when there is someone or something to blame. Victims of violent crimes can blame the perpetrator. Car accident victims can blame the other driver, alcohol or road conditions. I’m sure the father in Oregon blamed himself for ever having turned down that snowy road. Even victims of acts of God such as hurricanes, tsunami’s or fires can blame SOMETHING. With cancer, it hits out of the blue and we want answers – we want to know why – and we very much want to blame someone or something; and sometimes the only thing left to blame is God.

A cancer diagnosis is not without physical pain, but much of it can be managed. I think of burn victims and the 24/7 pain they suffer. When I think of emotional pain I think how fortunate I am to be the one with cancer and not one of my kids. I would live a hundred life times with cancer rather than have to watch one of my children live just one life with it. When I think of the mental challenges cancer presents, I think of people with mental illness and the daily hell many of them face.

The faithful either give thanks to God for curing them or blame God for their suffering. You can’t have it both ways. I lost a young friend to cancer a few years ago. He and his family were (are) devout Christians. Through their entire ordeal they never lost their faith in God or his greater plan. They all suffered, but stayed close to God and each other to get them through. If prayer healed all, it would have healed my friend Adam. It did not, but to this day, his family has not lost their faith.

We all have to come to terms with our circumstances. There is no right or wrong coping mechanism. Cancer strikes all faiths, believers and non-believers equally. When I was first diagnosed and learned that instead of “catching it early” as we had presumed, I was an advanced stage 3, I was completely shell shocked. I had always believed that everything happens for a reason. I believed in karma and I thought I’d lived a good life. I didn’t know what to think so I put my beliefs in a back corner of my mind to sort out later. When I’d made it to almost 3 years post surgery without a recurrence I finally dared to think I might be cured; only to suffer a recurrence at the 3 year mark. Once again the rug had been pulled out from underneath my feet.

Over the years I’ve come no closer to an answer or understanding than I’ve ever had. I still believe that everything happens for a reason. But I also believe that “reason” isn’t necessarily revealed to us in our lifetime. I believe that our human brain isn’t capable of comprehending the ‘real’ big picture. I hold onto these beliefs because I need something to hold onto. I can’t function thinking that all of this is completely random and cruel.

We can’t obsess over all the suffering in the world all the time. It would consume us and drive us crazy, so we need to compartmentalize it and hopefully, in our own small ways, try to make it better to the extent we can. When the suffering hits close to home, as with our own or a loved ones cancer diagnosis, learning to compartmentalize the pain and cope with our situations will challenge us in ways we have never before experienced.

For Adam and his family, faith and trust in God led them through their journey and continues to sustain them after his passing. For me, faith that there is a greater plan, even though I don’t understand it, helps me get through the day. I believe that all roads lead to one, and I believe there are many, many roads to get there. I wrote this blog not in an attempt to sway anyone in one direction or another but to encourage you to look beyond yourself and your own life when trying to understand the question of why. We all want simple, logical, straight forward answers. But when it comes to God and cancer, you’re not going to find them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look. Coming to terms with God, or whatever higher power you do or don’t believe in, is a valuable tool to have. So question your faith, question God, seek out answers. Try to find something to hold onto that will help sustain you through your journey until we are all blessed to learn the real answers to the question of why.