One of the things I was really glad to have when I was diagnosed with an incurable cancer in 2007, was my faith – the knowledge that the Lord was with me as part of my suite of tools to get me through it.
A diagnosis of cancer at any age is shocking and brutal. For me, a diagnosis of cancer at age 38 with two young children (aged 9 and 2) made me start to question what it’s all about. Is there a God? Where was God in all this? How could he allow this to happen? Why was my existence being threatened? Was I going to be around to see my children growing up? Was I going to get to grow old with my husband?
In the early days of my diagnosis a priest came to see me in hospital and he brought me a gift of a photo frame in which he had included the following piece of scripture from Corinthians:
“You can trust God not to be tried beyond your strength
and with every trial he will give you a way out of it and the strength to bear it…”
There are no other words that best describe how I felt about my faith in those first days and weeks after my diagnosis. It was the perfect pull-quote for me in that moment and ever since, that I can trust God not to be tried beyond my strength. What a wonderful piece to read, and, because of my lens of faith, to believe.
After my initial diagnosis and due to the risk of infection I was unable to go to Mass. There was a time, too, in the early days after the diagnosis, when I could not pray. I literally could not find the words, could not find the space inside my head to get my prayers out.
But I knew that people were praying for me – I was told so in the cards and letters I received every day. There was a whole faith community praying for me and willing me to get well.
Eventually I did find the words again and I was able to talk to God. I was able to bring things to him – like my fears and despairs – that for a time I could not verbalise to anyone else.
People ask me all the time how I can live with the knowledge that my life is maybe going to be shorter than I would have liked. The answer is quite simple – I have to! I am a Mum and a wife, a sister, an aunt, a friend, a soprano in a choir and a work colleague. These are things I am not going to give up on easily.
But, living with an incurable illness is not without its challenges. Some days it is very difficult to have to visualise how my kids will manage without a mum if the worst should happen. But I don’t get to dwell on it too long as the practicalities of life and the demands of being a busy working mum take over.
I do worry about the future and I sometimes have to battle to keep the cancer from taking over my every thought. Most days I am calm about it. Faith helps me enormously every day and especially on the down days.
I am determined to keep going and I have many a milestone I want to be here for and thank God there are many I have been able to tick off during the past ten years of remission I have had. I am so grateful to have been here for the thousands of joyous milestones I have had with my children and with my husband.
Since my diagnosis the thing I love most about my husband is his belief that we will grow old together. The other day we were watching this couple in their eighties negotiating the grocery shopping and they looked like an older version of us. Bryan looked at me and said ‘that will be us in another few years’.
Our marriage is a gift from God and my illness has made it and us stronger. I just love Bryan’s belief and the fact that he visualises a life with me rather than without me! He makes me love him more every day for that.
Death is a part of life for all of us and for those living with an incurable illness it is something we find ourselves having to face into sooner than we would have liked. I take comfort in the knowledge that there is a room for me in my father’s house. That particular passage from John’s Gospel has always been a favourite of mine – “There are many rooms in my father’s house…”
Having faith helps me to process and to bear this particular cross of serious illness. Having faith is a tremendous source of comfort. Having faith helps me pick myself up each time I am knocked down by something to do with my illness. Having faith is non-negotiable for me.
Pope Francis wrote a beautiful reflection about sickness and suffering and his words have stayed with me. He said:
“To suffer with patience is not easy. It is not easy whether the difficulties come from without or are problems with the heart, the soul or internal problems. But to suffer he said is not simply to bear something with a difficulty
To suffer is to take the difficulty and to carry it with strength, so that the difficulty does not drag us down. To carry it with strength: this is a Christian virtue. This means we do not let ourselves be overcome by difficulties. This means that the Christian has the strength not to give up, to carry difficulties with strength…”
My hope and my prayer is to have the strength to take this difficulty – my illness – to carry it with strength and to remember that the Joy of the Lord is my strength always.
Brenda Drumm is Communications Officer with the Catholic Communications Office of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. She presents a weekly faith podcast called Faithcast for CatholicNews.ie, the news source for the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Brenda is a writer and a blogger and has shared her journey with serious illness on a blog called An Irish Girl Interrupted. You can follow Brenda on Twitter @BrendaDrumm.