2020-04-28

c. 2002 Religion News Service

Almost 30 years after being diagnosed with cancer, Anne Shaw Turnage sees her own life as living proof that "grace keeps you going." Her personal experience led to a new book with the same title.

Co-authored with her husband, the Rev. Mac N. Turnage, the book testifies to the truth that cancer often propels people on a spiritual trek. While steep, treacherous, and difficult, that path need not be a hike one makes alone.

"Grace Keeps You Going: Spiritual Wisdom From Cancer Survivors" (Westminster John Knox Press, $12.95) recounts the pain and joy, fear and wisdom, uncertainty and assuredness encountered by survivors of cancer. The stories, often ironic and funny, are a panacea for the hard moments when people with cancer and their families struggle with the disease.

Three decades ago, Turnage and her husband, a Presbyterian clergyman, took a daunting diagnosis and turned it into a life's work. Turnage was a mother with young children when an emergency surgery revealed she had advanced colon cancer with metastasis to the liver. She was terrified, but determined.

Residents of Richmond, Virginia, the Turnages promised each other they would write a book about their experiences if Anne lived a year. It was 1973. Medical options for people with cancer were much more limited back then.

But Turnage's physician encouraged her to believe she might get well. "The first thing he told me was, 'You are serious. But if you are responsive, I've got some good news for you.' I didn't find out until eight years later that I was in a 5 percent group of people who respond to this treatment," Turnage said.

After surgery, her treatment was 5-FU, a form of chemotherapy. It was effective, but Turnage still believes that her physician's willingness to treat the whole person and her own faith helped her survive the disease. She went on to write her first book with her husband, "More Than You Dare To Ask," about her experiences and to work in Richmond with a nonprofit cancer service organization, CANSURMOUNT. The group, which originated in Colorado, continues today as a program of the American Cancer Society.

In 1980, the Turnages moved to Charlotte, N.C., where Anne Turnage founded the first CanCare chapter. In 1989, they moved to Houston and founded CanCare there after a $10,000 gift was presented to Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church where Mac Turnage was then associate pastor of pastoral care. In Houston, CanCare grew to a large and successful nonprofit with Anne Turnage as its executive director.

She since has retired from that post and now lives with her husband, also retired, in Mount Pleasant, S.C. But CanCare in Houston lives on with some 40 member congregations and more than 500 volunteers.

Volunteers are trained to work one-on-one with people who have cancer, with cancer survivors and with the families of both.

The Turnages' book dispenses a hearty dose of encouragement to ailing people. The couple dream that this book will help make readers aware that people dealing with cancer are members of an enormous club. There are 8 million cancer survivors in the United States and an estimated 1 million join those ranks annually, Anne Turnage said.

"This collection of verbal snapshots, with wise and foolish comments, is a family album for this massive tribe," Turnage said. "Because cancer survivors struggle with emotional and spiritual realities, maybe this book can provide strength for those moments."

One doesn't have to be religious to appreciate the book's deep wisdom. A poem, titled "Friends" in the book, speaks of the isolation caused by cancer: "The cancer hides me, but it hasn't blotted me out. I want them to touch me without cringing. I want them to look at me without showing pity for me," the author says, asking for divine help in reaching out to friends who have forsaken a person with cancer.

Another prayer comes from someone who doesn't have cancer, but has seen the devastation it can cause: "YOU know too that I want this disease conquered and removed from people I love. I want it conquered and banished from the world YOU love. Let me have a hand in destroying this destroyer. Please."

The book contains many tales of amazing hope, courage and peace. Telling stories "with fellow citizens in the cancer world is a liberating experience," the Turnages said.

They are convinced that Anne Turnage is healthy and alive today because of "good medical care, strong personal faith, widespread prayers for her recovery, steady support from family and friends and lively companionship with other survivors." Through 19 years of chemotherapy, Anne Turnage said, the "grace of God worked."

One of the most telling comments about the book comes from the Rev. Douglas W. Oldenburg, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). "We have all learned a lot from countless teachers, but the most effective are those who have been 'there,' who have personally experienced what they teach and are willing to share their stories," Oldenburg wrote in a letter about the book.

"Intermingled with the stories are helpful, creative, down-to-earth prayers, expressing to God all the feelings that are evoked in the hearts and minds of those survivors," he wrote. "Like The Psalms, they give us words to express our deepest emotions when we can't find our own words."

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