Lessons in Spirit

Heal, Fall 2007, Volume 1, Issue 2

A grim cancer diagnosis provided a new faith in things unseen.

Mind, body, spirit — we hear these words a lot today. Of the three, spirit remains the most elusive — and the hardest to define.

My friend Karen and I, both breast cancer survivors, had many a discussion about how spirit had entered our lives after cancer, and how embracing spirit had given each of us a new understanding of living and the people with whom we shared this journey called cancer.

Karen, who was diagnosed with a particularly “nasty” breast cancer in 1999 at age 42, found herself thrown into that existential search for the meaning of life with the doctor’s pronouncement that she would be dead in two years. Such a grim prognosis took her back to re-examine the religion of her youth, which she had left when she could not reconcile its beliefs with the hypocrisy she saw in many of its practitioners.

Beginning again, she found a new understanding of “faith in things unseen” as the core of her existence.

As a criminal judge she was bombarded daily with the horrific acts of society and became a cynic, she told me, when those she had given yet another chance once again committed some heinous act. After her diagnosis, she discovered a personal pain for those whose souls had been taken by addiction and abuse.

She passed the two-year death sentence and then the next year. By year four she celebrated by falling in love and marrying for the first time, at age 46. She also became involved in Gilda’s Club North Texas, the local affiliate of the national organization named for comedian Gilda Radner, which provides social and emotional support for people with cancer and their family and friends.

On Thursdays, she and I facilitated a group at Gilda’s called “Engaging the Spirit,” which we found attracted those like Karen — either fearing that remission would be short-lived or already facing recurrence. The four or five regulars who attended our group represented a number of belief systems, from agnostic to Catholic to Muslim, but found common ground in their search for spirit. They discovered quickly that we had no answers for them in how to understand the spiritual aspects of cancer, only that when we gathered in that room, we were open to any feelings that came in response to the question, How is your spirit?

For more than two years we lived with those in the group as each brought new insights about the power of spirit that bound us together. We grappled with closure for Phillip as he said goodbye to his wife and three daughters before a brain tumor took any more of his senses. A tradesman by profession, Phillip uncovered pure love in the months before he died, writing poetry that was collected into a book after his death.

Marci, a single mother, was forced to move home with her mother and father as her breast cancer returned. But she resolved her relationship with her parents and son and found peace before she died. And Sam argued with the group, who thought he should let his daughter stop college and care for him during his treatment for lymphoma, as she wished. Sam vehemently disagreed. His hope was to see her graduate before he died. When Sam said he was going on vacation to see his family in Pakistan, we all took a long time bidding him farewell, knowing as he did that he would die there surrounded by extended family and his daughter, newly graduated, and her fiancé.

Paula, who was the sickest when we started the group, drew us together to help her overcome her fear of death. Today she has moved into that place called chronic cancer, where she lives a resolved life without fear and continues to joyfully raise her four children. And Fran, whose ovarian cancer has recurred and been pushed back into remission countless times, brought the passion of her art to the group.

Love, peace, hope, joy, resolution, passion, faith in things unseen, living every day of our lives — these, Karen and I learned, are the components of spirit. They surrounded Karen in April when she died, more than seven years after her diagnosis.

Beginning again, she found a new understanding of “faith in things unseen” as the core of her existence.