2020-04-28
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

As I began my journey through breast cancer three years ago, I felt adrift in a sea of motivational speakers, self-help books, and celebrity experts who uniformly encouraged me to battle for the ultimate goal: to be a "survivor." More times than I can count, I found myself recruited to be a fighter in the "war against cancer," a war in which I was urged to struggle against the enemy, using the force of my will to "kick cancer's butt." I was introduced to a culture in which "losers" are people who die and winners are those who emerge from illness "unchanged."

Admittedly, for some people, the war metaphors work. Many people are inspired by the language of warfare. The lucky ones struggle valiantly and emerge triumphant. But what about those whose return to health does not occur as planned? And what about those who don't want to live their lives, regardless of the outcome, on a battlefield? Increasingly I began to wonder if some of us would be better served if we could lay down the sword and seek new metaphors for healing more in keeping with our own values.

As it turns out, I was not alone. My first inkling of this came when I invited my best friend Susan to accompany me to a cancer fund-raiser. One step ahead of me in her own journey through breast cancer, she tried to beg off. Didn't she want the inspiration? "I find it exhausting," she replied, explaining that she was tired of being asked to go to war when her own sense of healing had more to do with nurturing herself than taking up the battle. For 25 years, Susan had studied with the Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. While I, a Jew, pursued my masters in religious studies at Vanderbilt, and Susan completed her doctorate in education, we had spent long, delicious hours discussing philosophy and spirituality in meandering walks and over tea. We never expected to have to continue our conversations at bedside while one or the other of us went through various stages of treatment and recovery for our breast cancers.

Over the coming months and years, Susan and I began to speak a new language for healing with each other, calling upon our respective spiritual traditions for inspiration. We spoke of illness not as a test of survivorship--but as an initiation into the deeper mysteries of life. For us, life-threatening illness carried with it spiritual dimensions that the current disease culture did not come close to addressing.

As we began to share our ideas with others, we realized that we were not the only ones who were seeking new and better ways to talk about serious illness. The people we encountered represented many diagnoses, religions, and lifestyles, and included both women and men of a variety of ages. What we shared was this: rather than go through serious illness unchanged, we wanted to be transformed by it--to ask and answer the biggest questions about mortality and meaning, and to find new resources of faith and peace--regardless of our prognosis.

"No easy answers or simple formulas..."
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  • One of the first people I shared our thoughts with was Linda Quigley--a feature editor for Nashville's daily newspaper. She had come to my house to do an interview with me about the book I had just written about resilience, a book drafted before I knew how badly I would be needing to take my own advice. Preoccupied with chemotherapy and the loss of my hair, I must have been the only person in Nashville who didn't know that Linda also had breast cancer and had undergone chemotherapy. In fact, Linda, whose spirituality was based within the Twelve-step programs, had written an award-winning series about her own experiences with breast cancer the previous year. We were delighted as we shared the spiritual dimensions the disease had opened up in both our lives.

    I met the fourth of our quartet of authors, Reverend Doctor Karen Leigh Stroup, in an unplanned moment in the chemotherapy treatment room at Vanderbilt Hospital. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer while pursuing her doctorate in religion at Vanderbilt several years earlier. Karen, who has outlived her most serious prognosis first by months and now by years, reached out to me at a particularly scary moment to inspire me with the ability to hope against the odds. As the four of us have deepened our friendships, Karen, a Christian and an ordained minister, has brought her bright spirit and unflagging courage to us all, demonstrating that the spiritual approach we were sharing could hold up under the most serious of circumstances.

    Drawing on our divergent experiences and perspectives, we set out to see if we could identify some common landmarks in our journey through serious illness. Together, we identified five broad steps: psychological and spiritual stages that we had all encountered during the evolution of our relationships to our illness. From the impact and chaos of the earlier stages, to the challenges of making choices, the gathering of community, and finally the encounter with a more mature spirituality: we named this model "A Pathway to Spirit: The Five Stages of Transformation."

    First in our friendship and ultimately in our book, we have made the effort to grapple with many of the questions that are foremost on many people's' minds--yet rarely get addressed. We have learned enough to know there are no easy answers or simple formulas. And no path will work for everyone. But for those seeking a way in which even life-threatening illness can be a spiritual path, we offer a place to start the journey.

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