October is Breast Cancer Month. In a reflection written for Anglican Journal, Victoria Matthews, bishop of Edmonton, reflects on what sustains her as she lives with the disease.
For more information on breast cancer, visit www.cbcf.org. “You must have been very frightened when you first heard the diagnosis.”
That suggestion was perhaps the most repeated response to my disclosure of breast cancer and subsequent withdrawal from the electoral processes for the primacy and diocese of Toronto. In fact, fear wasn’t present in any noticeable fashion. I think Canadian women hear so much about breast cancer these days that the standard “but it couldn’t happen to me” is an unlikely reaction. Also, as a Christian, one is very aware that one is called to be ready. We don’t have special armour to protect against disease but we do have extraordinary spiritual resources with which to respond to physical assault and illness. Hence my internal response was closer to “Fasten your seat belt; we are experiencing extreme turbulence.” And as we hear so often in Christian life, one quickly realizes this is not the time to wish one had bothered to acquire a seat belt but rather to buckle up with whatever is at hand in one’s spiritual treasury.
From the initial diagnosis I was made aware that my situation was unusual. Bilateral breast cancer with multiple sites is rare. Consequently, the original expectation for treatment was bilateral mastectomy, then six months of chemotherapy followed by radiation. In time this was changed to surgery and three months of chemotherapy without follow-up radiation therapy, largely because the cancer was not found in the lymph nodes.
Along the way people have asked me what has sustained me. In addition to a daily diet of prayer and Scripture reading that forms my personal spiritual discipline, I have found, interestingly enough, strength and consolation in beauty, Christian witness and exercise. For most of my adult life I have walked my dog every day. The usual distance is four to six kilometres. Once I was on medical leave these walks became not only longer but began to involve going to nature preserves further out. Frequently we see beavers, moose, bison, loons, owls, hawks, eagles, and deer. We walk in spectacular and inclement weather. Every day there is a ministry of beauty and a sense of the presence of God in the handiwork of creation. While there is nothing more spectacular than a first-class display of the northern lights, awe and wonder are also invoked by sighting a gaggle of geese overhead. Each walk reminds me that this world is much bigger than myself and my present challenges.
The Christian witness that sustains me daily comes in the form of prayers, community and reading. Conversations on the journey have included the host of people at coffee hours and in shopping malls who have quietly said, “I was diagnosed with cancer 10 (or 20) years ago and it hasn’t stopped me from having a full and productive life.” There is a community of support that is breathtaking. Prayers have been offered around the globe and I have felt carried by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Indeed God has allowed me to know the divine embrace in such an extraordinary way during the last few months that I am able to say with even deeper conviction that my life is in Christ. Of course I hope for and even expect full healing in this life. As I said at the outset, I believe I have lots more ministry to offer. But this life is only a shadow of the fullness of the life in Christ we are called to in eternity.
(During my three months in chemotherapy I am part of a study on the effects of exercise for breast cancer patients. It involves a fairly vigorous workout at a university research gym three times a week. I have come to think of this life as the warm up and stretching phase of the work out. It is very important and not to be omitted, yet at the same time only the entrance to the workout.)
Two final observations: First, interesting things happen when a very busy, motivated person is suddenly required to step aside and rest. I have learned again to think deeply about things that do not require me to make a decision. It also was surprisingly simple at one level to put in place commissaries and to rework diocesan life. It had to be done in less than a week and it was. There is a real lesson in that. There are always people who are willing and able to undertake our ministry in Christ with at least our own level of competence. The ministry of the Gospel is the ministry of the whole Body of Christ. Lastly, life is a gift and we squander it to our peril. Whether we are given the four score years Psalm 90 speaks of, or a much shorter interlude, life is a precious trust. Each person we encounter, each conversation, every opportunity to worship and enter into praise and wonder is an opportunity to live. Paul’s parting words to the Philippians speaks of this: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”