This article was excerpted with permission from"Speak the Language of Healing," published by Conari Press.

Early on, my greatest fear was not that I might die of cancer, but that I had been responsible for it. When I finally rode out the waves of guilt and shame, I found myself in unexpectedly calm waters. Through the mastectomy and recovery from surgery and on into the early rounds of chemotherapy, often I felt God holding me. It was as if all my debts had been forgiven and I was at peace. But still, I did not want to die.


Informed consent is a foundation of medical practice. Yet, it contains an inherent problem. How can a person be truly informed about the unknown? How could I have asked my real questions? Will I die? Should I say good-bye to the world and to those I love?

Understanding the unknowable is the realm of mystics and poets. In the Sufi Message, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan [says], "Sometimes initiation comes after great illness, pain, or suffering. It comes as an opening up of the horizon, and in a moment the world seems transformed. It is not that the world has changed, but that person is tuned to a different pitch. She begins to think, feel differently, and act differently. One might say that from that moment this person begins to live."
   --Susan Kuner

Somewhere between rounds three and four of chemotherapy, I went to see a healer. Em was a wise, older woman--a midwife of the spirit--who put me into a deep state of relaxation. In her low, soothing voice, she guided me to visualize myself eradicating the cancer cells. Oddly enough, when I emerged from that session, the peace that had infused my life was no more. The intimacy with God was gone. Suddenly, I felt alone and scared. Then I came home to an empty house. The kids were at various after-school activities. There was a message on the answering machine that an emergency had come up at the office and Dan would not be home for dinner.

I seethed. Dan, who had been at my beck and call for months; who had dutifully volunteered for the task of giving me a daily shot needed to counteract the side effects of chemotherapy; who had stuck with me through it all--boy, was he going to get it when he came home. As promised, I sprang like a snake. "You are looking for an excuse not to come home," I hissed. "You're tired of taking care of me! Admit it!"

"Don't you dare talk that way to me," he replied, louder than a hiss.

"I'll talk to you however I damn well please!" I was screaming now.

"Then you can go to hell!" He shouted back.

Somewhere in the house a door slammed. As if we had been awakened by an alarm clock, we suddenly looked into each other's eyes and started laughing.

Why were we laughing?

Because you don't say "Go to hell" to a dying woman. He said it--so I must not be dying. With a few well-chosen swear words, I had turned the corner toward recovery.

The next time I saw Em, I told her what had happened. Even though on some deep level, I knew that my anger meant that I was getting better--I did not understand why I no longer felt as close to God as I had.

Em explained to me that what I'd gotten those first peaceful few months was a kind of sneak-peek, sort of a spiritual "trying it on for size." The experience of serenity was real enough. If I had died, I would have died in peace. The thing is, I didn't die. Now I was on the verge of discovering one of the world's greatest-kept secrets: it's easier to die than it is not to. I had learned that I could, if necessary, die peacefully. But what was it going to take for me to pick up again the mainstream of my life?

During this time of transition, I stumbled across a unique interpretation of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Do you remember this story from the Hebrew Scriptures? God tells Abraham he wants him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham follows instructions, bringing Isaac to the mountain designated by God for the ritual slaughter. As Abraham and his young son walk up the mountain, Isaac keeps asking, "Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?" Abraham answers, "God will provide the lamb." When they get to the top of the mountain, Abraham prepares the altar for the sacrifice. Still no lamb. At last, Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and is about to kill him when an angel intervenes to stop him. Then Abraham discovers the sacrificial ram, horns tangled in the brambles nearby. Isaac was freed and the animal sacrificed in his place.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I felt that I understood this story as Abraham's test of faith. Abraham trusted God so much, he would even give up the life of his beloved son, if asked. Now I, too, was being tested. I was being asked to be willing to give up my own life, if asked. But what kind of God would administer such a test?

Then I read the alternate interpretation of the story, the one I now choose to follow. There was a test, all right. But it was a test that Abraham flunked. God had wanted Abraham to say, "NO!" No, I will not sacrifice my child. Life is too precious. I choose not to obey!

God had to send an angel to do what Abraham had not done--stop the sacrifice and set Isaac free.

This second interpretation teaches us that God wants us to value life and to argue with our fate, especially when it is unjust. I am learning to receive test results as information--a life mandate, not a death sentence. I now understand that my path is not to surrender passively to fate. But neither is it to fight against it. I have been blessed with a third choice: I can hope. No matter what, I can always hope. But to allow one's self to hope is to take a risk. And in taking this risk, I am living my life dangerously, indeed.

Reprinted with permission from "Speak the Language of Healing: Living with Breast Cancer without Going to War," by Susan Kuner, Carol Matzkin Orsborn, Linda Quigley, and Karen Leigh Stroup. Copyright 1999 by the authors. Permission granted by Conari Press.

Do you have questions you'd like Carol or any of her co-authors to answer? Please send them in an email to: columnists@staff.beliefnet.com.

Be sure to include "Speak Healing" in the subject line.

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