Facing up to a new challenge

  • July 27, 2011

When I began writing this column, I shared that occasionally I would do a column that was more exclusively about my personal life. I have tried to limit myself in that and, in the 28 years I have been writing this column, have probably done fewer than 10 pieces whose main focus was my own life. When I have done so, it was almost always to share with readers a major transition in my life.

This column is one of those personal pieces. My personal life is again undergoing a major transition, though this one does not concern a move to a new job or to a new city. It has to do with my health.

In early May I went for a routine colonoscopy and the doctor discovered a cancerous tumour in my colon. The good news was that it was discovered relatively early, before there were symptoms.

They scheduled me for surgery in early June and removed the affected area, along with a series of lymph nodes. The operation, while pretty invasive, went well, but some of the lymph nodes had already been affected, meaning that the cancer was not necessarily fully contained in the tumour. I have recovered very well from the surgery, though this took some weeks. An oncologist advised me that prudence dictates that there be a follow-up treatment to the surgery, namely, six months of chemotherapy. He also assured me that the long-term prognosis is good, but that, as with all cancer, nothing is really sure until it’s sure. A cure is most likely, but not assured. I start the chemotherapy treatments in early August and will be facing a certain desert-experience for the next six months.

This is not a plea for sympathy. I share this with you because one shares this with one’s family and you are my family of readers. I will appreciate your prayers, even as I trust you not to deluge me with e-mails, cards and letters. What we give to each other inside the mystical body of faith, family and friendship need not be announced to be effective.

Where am I with all of this?

Initially, especially before the surgery and subsequent scans revealed more precisely the limit of the cancer, there was understandably a good amount of fear and paranoia. One’s thoughts and fears aren’t easy to control when one’s next visit to the doctor might mean a death sentence. Eventually though, and not just because the long-term prognosis now appears quite positive, I have begun to find a deep peace within all of this. I trust in God and know that I am in safe hands, irrespective of whatever happens. I also trust the medical professionals with whom I have been dealing. They have been marvelously competent and infinitely gentle. What a grace for us all, the skill of doctors!

But that peace of soul is also predicated on a number of realizations that were only abstract theories for me before this illness. Some things are infinitely more real to me now: I now know existentially that life is fragile, that health is precious and that it’s to be appreciated rather than taken for granted. I know too existentially that we cannot safeguard our own lives, no matter how carefully we try. Faith and hope are flooding into my life as never before.

So too is love. Family and friends are mostly taken for granted when we are young and strong and under the illusion that death is not really a reality for us. We realize how deep a grace family and friendship are only when we are fully attuned to our own vulnerability; mostly, too, it’s only then that we actually allow others to love us.  

And there are other deep lessons in this for me: I have been driving my engines hard for a long time, dodging bullets as I overwork and am over-extended. So many times in the past years, in a trance of overwork, I promised God that I would slow my life down, just as soon as this particular task was finished. Indeed, often, explicitly in prayer, I asked God to let me do this slowdown willfully, and not have some health breakdown force it on me. Like the young Augustine, I was praying: “Slow me down, but not yet!” My cancer diagnosis is finally doing for me what I couldn’t do for myself. My prayer now is: Let me receive this gracefully, and as a grace!

One last lesson: Should I land on my feet, healthy and my old self again after the chemotherapy, I hope to have the strength to not return to my old life, grateful to have dodged a bullet and ready for business as usual. Instead, like the one leper who returned to give thanks to Jesus rather than going back to normal living, I am praying that the grace of this visitation will be the alchemy I have long needed to make me turn instead habitually in gratitude towards Jesus and towards the present moment.

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at his web site www.ronrolheiser.com.)