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Commentary on cancer: Learning the secrets hidden from health

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I’ve always harbored a paranoia about being overly personal in my writing or in thinking that my emotional ups and downs are of interest to others. I’ve tried to respect that fear. Occasionally, however, circumstance dictates that I do write something more personal. This is such an occasion.

Father Ron Rolheiser

I want to express my gratitude for the prayers and support that I have received during these past seven months while undergoing treatments for cancer. That desert journey has finally ended, and with a good result. A month ago, I finished my last chemotherapy treatment and, two weeks ago, after a battery of medical tests, was pronounced cancer-free.  To God, family, friends, colleagues, and to the many of you who have supported me in prayer: Thank you.

John Updike, in a poem titled,” Fever,” once wrote about what illness might teach us:

I have brought back a good message from the land of 102 degrees:

God exists. I had seriously doubted it before;

but the bedposts spoke of it with utmost confidence,

the threads in my blanket took it for granted,

the tree outside the window dismissed all complaints,

and I have not slept so justly for years.

It is hard, now, to convey how emblematically appearances sat

upon the membranes of my consciousness; but it is truth long known,

that some secrets are hidden from health.

Indeed, some secrets are hidden from health. What secrets did I learn from my loss of health?

The initial diagnosis of cancer caught me by surprise and for a time left me mostly numb and frightened. But, after surgery and having six months of chemotherapy and the projected long-term prognosis (good chance for a cure) explained to me, I prayerfully laid out a number of conversion steps that I hoped this illness and its bitter treatment would impose on me.

I resolved to make this time of treatment a grace in my life. I would slow down my life, not just during treatment but forever afterward. I would learn to be more patient. I would be rigorously faithful to a daily practice of contemplative prayer. I would no longer take life, love, friendship, and health for granted, but would finally, after years of failed resolutions, begin to live more inside of the wonder of God and life and not have my energy so absorbed by the demands of work and agenda.

What happened? Old habits die hard, even under the pressure of illness. After six months of treatments, on my better days, I sense some modest improvement. Some of my resolutions have borne fruit, but I’m still a long ways from the ideals that I had set for myself. My old habits have been quick to reassert their grip on my life.

But life is what happens to you while you are planning your life; so, too, conversion. Having cancer taught me some lessons other than the ones I’d planned. Most important among these was this: Like everyone else in this world, I’ve always wanted joy in my life — friendship, love, celebration. But, and this has been the big handicap in finding these, I have always, however unconsciously, felt that the joy and celebration I so longed for could only come my way when I was finally free from all anxiety, emotional tension, pressure, overwork, illness, frustration and stress of all kinds.

We nurse this strange fantasy that it’s only after all our bills are paid, our health is perfect, all tensions within our families and friendships are resolved, and we are in a peaceful, leisured space that can finally fully enter life and enjoy it. In the meantime, we put our lives on hold as we perpetually gear up, get ready, and wait for that perfect moment to arrive where we can finally rejoice within life.

While undergoing cancer treatments I learned something. When I first started the treatments I began marking a calendar — day one, day two, day three — consciously putting my life on hold, putting myself into a posture of waiting, marking away the days until, in my fantasy, the treatments ended and I could live life again. But, strangely, as the days unfolded, I found that I was living through one of the richer and happier periods in my life.

Inside of the tiredness, nausea, and neuropathy, I was finding a rich enjoyment in friendships, colleagues, work, and (on days when I could actually taste them) food and drink. The six months within which I was undergoing cancer treatment, turned out to be six happy and deeply meaningful months.

As John Shea puts it:  “Life includes suffering. When you are spending all your energies to only rejoice in that part of life that does not include suffering, you will not enter into life because you will be dominated by fear and exclusion and not faith.”

Cancer taught me this lesson and, for that and your prayers, I am most grateful.

Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted at  www.ronrolheiser.com.