Beliefnet
Rod Dreher

My dad, I’m pleased to say, has quit smoking. After seeing what his daughter is going through with her lung cancer, he stopped cold turkey, after a lifetime of the habit. Talking to him on the phone driving into work this morning, I told him that I can’t see people smoking now without a chill. I think, if you could only see how hard it is for my sister to breathe now… . If you could only imagine the pain and suffering that lies ahead for her, whether or not she beats this thing. If you could only imagine how much this thing grieves her family. If you knew what we were going through, you would make heroic efforts to put those cigarettes down!
Yes, Ruthie was never a smoker, but she still got lung cancer. Still, there’s no denying that your risk of lung cancer is vastly greater if you do smoke. There is no pleasure in it that’s worth the agony of what my sister and her family are enduring. Chemo starts today, by the way.
And by the way.2, John Zmirak got the terrible news over the weekend that yet another of his family members has a very serious form of cancer. His mother and father both died from cancer, and it was a grim way to go. He writes of his relative’s news:

Grieved as I felt for her, I watched with self-disgust as my concerns quickly turned inward. My mind leaped in just a few minutes from the prospect of her suffering to blankly selfish thoughts: “That makes four out of four of my closest genetic connections, stricken with one variety or another. One beat it, but two are dead.” Which tells me not just that someday I’m going to die, but very likely how I’ll die: Slowly, over months, just like my mother and father did, surrounded by people feeding me false hopes and applesauce, while a TV flickers and the pain gets every single day more crushing, more soul-extinguishing.
Because what I’ve learned from watching cancer is, There’s Never Enough Morphine. For one thing, doctors can’t give you enough to ease the pain that comes at the end, hemmed in as they are by fear of lawsuits by — get ready — patients who miraculously recover and then sue their doctors for getting them addicted to painkillers. Yes, there really are people out there who respond to beating “terminal cancer” by doing this, with the outcome that thousands of patients like my mother end up screaming through some of their final days — until at last the doctors see that there’s no danger of recovery, and they open the floodgates of opiates, which typically (and mercifully) slows down breathing, sometimes stops it. Some persnickety ethicists out there complain that this amounts to euthanasia. I’d like a few moments alone with them in a cancer ward, with a bag of surgical instruments. I could teach them the redemptive value of suffering.

As John, a Catholic, goes on to say, we Christians believe that suffering is redemptive, though we who profess that view should spend some time with those in terrible pain before we so glibly assert the truth of that statement. John is struggling with theodicy here — that is, the explanation for why an all-good and all-powerful God allows pain, suffering and evil in the world. In the end, I don’t think anything a theologian has to tell me will suffice. Only an act of will — faith — that tells me what is happening to my sister, what happens to all who suffer, and what will happen to me one day, some way, will not be in vain. What else is there? As John puts it so well, “My intellect points me to the crucifix to show me that our way is not only better, but it is Good. As I am learning, that makes it no less terrible.”
Let us pray for each other, and help bear each other’s sufferings. The journey is long, the burden is great.
UPDATE: A reader writes to caution that what John Zmirak witnessed in his mother’s grim cancer death is not necessarily how it is for everyone. He writes:

I saw my mom, and one of my best friends die of cancer, ovarian and pancreatic. It wasn’t pretty, but neither of them ‘screamed at the end.’ My mom’s oncologist told her, when she said she was anxious about pain, ‘We won’t let that happen.’ I think most doctors will risk the lawsuit, especially if the family is supportive. My mom’s certainly did.

That’s a comfort. Also, in the comboxes Thomas Tucker, who is an oncologist, says there are plenty of doctors who will make sure a suffering patient is not in a lot of pain in their final days.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus