Cancer in Quarantine: Offering up your Suffering
It was my intention at the beginning of my HER 2+/ER+/PR- breast cancer diagnosis in February 2020 to offer up my suffering for someone else. I wanted to take myself out of the selfish “Why me?” and quietly offer up my suffering for someone else because, “Why not me?” But, I couldn’t do it. When I prayed, I did my best to think of others, to step outside of myself, and to find respite under the mantle of Blessed Mother.
I spent a lot of time in the first five months just trying to make it to the next appointment, procedure, or treatment. Each one was a little buoy in time to which I desperately clung, otherwise I’d drown thinking about each step. I couldn’t see the whole picture and I couldn’t find solace in offering up my suffering. In the beginning, when I did pray for someone specifically, it was hard to think and process anything. There seemed to be a great roaring in my head that prevented me from thinking clearly. I think the roaring was something like, “NOOOOOOOO!!!!” and “Am I going to die?” repeated over and over again. The barrage of information presented at each appointment often left me exhausted and numb. I had difficulty thinking far into the future and I was marking time by appointments and procedures. I wasn’t taking things one day at a time. Instead I was taking things one appointment at a time, clinging to each one seeing them as a guide post on this journey. Between appointments I was doggy paddling hoping not to drown in the ocean of information I was given each time.
It went a lot like this:
Okay. Now I have my diagnosis, I have to make it to my breast health clinic appointment, next week. Just hang on.
When I made it to my appointment the next thought was: I just have to make it to my lumpectomy. I can do this. Right? Hang on. Hang on.
I have to make it to my evaluation. If I can make it to this appointment, we’ll know what’s next. And then we can move forward.
And that’s how I managed the early parts of the diagnosis, marking time and using each appointment and procedure as anchor in time, or was it a buoy? It’s like when you’re running and you are so tired and you tell yourself, just keep running to that streetlight, now keep going to that stop sign, good job, can you make it to the end of the corner and you make these guideposts for you to cling to until you reach the finish line.
In the moments between appointments I spent a lot of time resting and healing between procedures and doing a lot of internet searches. I’m a teacher by trade and I’m accustomed to prepping and planning. It’s my safety zone. If I don’t know something, I research it. I like being prepared. The first few months were surreal. Things were happening to me and I was just along for the ride. I never felt like I was a warrior or fighting cancer. I still don’t. I just felt like I was following orders. I wasn’t brave. I was terrified. Now the terror has abated, but there is still an underlying fear that we won’t eradicate all of the cancer, despite the treatments. There is still a possibility of trading breast cancer for cervical cancer because of the medications I am taking to rid my body of the estrogen positive cancer cells. The fear that there will be a reoccurrence or a trade off in cancer is a fear that I will live with for the rest of my life. I’m still worried that I’ll leave my children motherless before I’m an old woman.
Now that I’m done with the hard parts of my treatment, I have more time and wherewithal to focus on someone other than my suffering. It seems wrong because the whole point is to offer up your suffering while you are in the midst suffering. I tried. I desperately tried, but I was terribly overwhelmed.
In the beginning, I was barely functioning. I was so worried about my children that I was barely able to think outside of what was going on with me and how it was affecting them. But here’s the thing, even when we struggle to think of anyone else, God is there for us. He is always there for us. And when we can pull ourselves out of the mire of grief and worry, we find that there is something beautiful and redemptive when we look outside of ourselves and pray for someone else. When we offer up our pain and suffering for someone else we are doing it just as Jesus did it fo us. In our small way we are experiencing his suffering. His suffering was redemptive and our suffering can be redemptive, too.
St. John Paul II says, “In bringing about the Redemption through Suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus, each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ (Salvifici Doloris, 19).
St. Teresa of Avila says, “Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.” So while I couldn’t coherently think about offering up my suffering, maybe my unspoken prayers of loving on my family was all that was needed.
In Brandon Vogt’s article, How to offer up your suffering like St. John Vianney Vogt provides a simple way to offer up your suffering:
Each time you face a difficult situation at home or work, pray, “Lord, I offer this to you for the sake of [insert name].” Each time you suffer a small cut, or perhaps a sore throat, bear it willingly and say, “Lord, I offer this sacrifice to you for [insert name]
I find beauty in the simplicity of this prayer. It makes it easier to focus on someone else. By offering up our suffering, we allow ourselves to think beyond ourselves. One of my favorite sayings that was shared by our neighbor was, “We are called to serve one another.” I think we serve one another when we offer up our suffering for someone else. As Vogt says in his conclusion, “When we make small sacrifices on behalf of others, we experience what St. John found two hundred years ago: needed grace surging into the world.”
I know that I could use with some grace. I know that I should give grace. My suffering humbles me to do both. It’s very easy to lament my situation. And I’m not saying, I don’t grieve. I’m still grieving. I think grieving is an important part of the process. But I’m no longer lost in my grief. I have channeled my grief by making blankets for other people, something that I didn’t have the energy to do in the beginning, and in turn it has given me great peace. I make them for other cancer patients. I make them for my nieces and nephews as they graduate from high school. I make them for the new babies the come into the church. I make them in celebration of a marriage
I learned how to crochet when my first daughter was born more than 12 years ago. Since then I’ve made countless baby blankets and full-sized afghans. There are times that I have trouble quieting my mind and my heart. But whenever I pick up a crochet hook and a skein of yarn, I am able to channel my prayers for the person for whom I am making the blanket. There is beauty in the simplicity of making something for someone with only a yarn and hook. The rhythmic movement of the hook is soothing and it’s easy to pray with each stitch. It’s no longer about me, my worries, and anxious heart, it’s about someone else and when I’m done, I am able to offer those prayers, crocheted into each blanket, with love. St. Teresa says, “Know that even when you are in the kitchen, our Lord moves amidst the pots and pans.” I think it’s that way with the blankets that I’ve made. I believe God takes the time to sit with me while I work on something for someone else. He knows that my stitches are my prayers for someone else.