Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #8 – Finding Out The Deep Meaning Behind Your Having Cancer

I don’t remember a whole lot of what I was thinking and how I felt when I had cancer and treatment: I think I’ve blotted much of it out. However, there are some thoughts and emotions I do remember having which I now find a little baffling. It wasn’t the being sick part. Pain, long periods in treatment, even death didn’t trouble me as much as others probably assumed. When I was diagnosed, I actually felt elated – some might say smug – probably because I’d been misdiagnosed for months even though I knew in my guts something was terribly wrong. But having what you’d be forgiven for thinking is the scariest disease in the whole world didn’t frighten me as nearly as much as worrying about what on earth I was supposed to be doing as a person with cancer.

What was the higher purpose for me having cancer? What was the special mission I was supposed to be on? And was I doing it right?

For example, so obsessed was I with the idea my having cancer was a kind of existential quest I imagined I was morally obliged to share Jesus with all the other patients in the cancer ward. And when I couldn’t do it (because it was, of course, highly inappropriate) I tortured myself with self-shaming until I made myself even sicker than I already was. As far as I was concerned, if cancer didn’t have a higher purpose or meaning for me, and if I didn’t have a special job to do while I had it, then that meant cancer was actually totally meaningless.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

This thought was simply more than I could bear.

As the months went by, I learned to relax – a little. Not because I let go of the idea I needed a special job in Cancer World for it to be validated as a meaningful experience in my life, but because I came to see me needing some kind of a special, unique and very energy consuming job while I had cancer would probably be doing a whole bunch of very nice people out of theirs.

I learned I simply had to stop thinking I had a special job to do, and start realizing as a very sick person, I was someone else’s special job to do. There were people in my life who raced off to their jobs each day burning with a passion to help people with cancer, just like me. There were people in my world who trained for years to learn how to do the exact things that needed to be done to me to help me get rid of cancer. There were people praying for me, some of them whom I hadn’t even met, folks who cried real tears and begged God to intervene as they imagined my kids growing up without their mum. All these folks in my world had a special job to do. My special job for now was to be a sick person who needed these others to help me. Not to save everyone else, but to be saved.

You may feel your having cancer has no purpose for you, in the bigger picture of your life. It may turn out, where you are concerned, to be completely pointless and an utter waste of your time and energy. But your having cancer may well turn out to match up exactly with someone else’s reason for living.

Something to think about. 🙂

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5 Replies

  • Jo, I think the conversation about whether or not there’s a spiritual meaning or grander purpose for a person’s getting cancer is a complex one, and I have doubts about anyone who comes up with a quick “yes” or “no”.
    As a Christian, I do believe that God uses bad things and makes good things happen:
    “”As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in
    order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”–Genesis 50:20
    That said, I don’t think God causes people to get cancer. We have an Enemy (Ephesians 6:12), and of course, there is just the randomness of life.
    My good friends the Tepera family (find them on my Facebook friend list) have a son who was diagnosed with Leukemia about 14 months ago. But he’s got a long life ahead of him now, thanks to a marrow transplant. Along the way, many other great things happened, including several marrow drives which were set up because of this kid, arranged by his mom, and publicized on the local networks. Now, several months later, at least 5 of the thousands of people who attended these drives and got swabbed have been identified as matches, and they likely will save the lives of 5 complete strangers. So God did use this for good.
    That doesn’t mean every instance of cancer will have a higher purpose. I hope it does. But I realize that if it does, it may not be apparent to us.

    • Thanks James, as always, a thoughtful and insightful comment.
      For many people journeying through cancer, they struggle to see any purpose or meaning in it, and when they do, it can be many years later when, viewing it with hindsight and perspective, they are able to understand the validity or the meaning of what they went through. I include myself in this.
      There’s no doubt negative circumstances can have positive aspects to them, and as I’ve stated in the post, changing our perspective a little can help us see these opportunities and windows of hope.
      But they’re not always apparent. And they’re not always there.
      For every one person who tells me they understand the place cancer plays in their lives, I hear two who state the whole thing was a disruption and completely pointless. I feel this viewpoint is as valid as the one which states cancer is an opportunity for growth or a “wake up call”. I believe people ought to be able to interpret their own cancer experience in their own way. Even if they hated every aspect it and could see no point to it.
      I became very, very sick of people telling me “God is going to use this for His glory.” It might have even been true, but I wasn’t in a place to hear that. I really just needed someone to say “this is crap, and I’m with you in it.” Telling someone all the wonderful things they’ll learn from cancer if they really want to is a bit like saying “This isn’t a bad experience, it’s actually good one, and I’m not coming in there to whine with you. You just change your attitude, cranky pants.”
      My Bible says “mourn with those who mourn, weep with those who weep.”
      And you know my thoughts about whether “God gives us cancer to make us better people.”
      Cheers, Jo 🙂

  • Jo, have you seen “Stranger than Fiction” with Will Ferrell? Although cancer is not the killer, it does entertain the idea of an Author who numbers our days, and has a purpose for doing so. It makes you think.

  • “All these folks in my world had a special job to do. My special job for
    now was to be a sick person who needed these others to help me. Not to
    save everyone else, but to be saved.” Wise words only realised in retrospect.The need to feel validated is a curious and motivating thing isn’t it. I have seen others go down the “existential quest road – and to be honest it can be absolutely cringe-worthy” – its good to realise and accept that this is the wrong track and to acknowledge its actually okay to let people tend to your needs and there is no requirement for you to do anything more than to let them get on with their job.

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