Lighting the Path to Cancer Survivorship

During this holiday season, lighting candles in remembrance and in honor of those who need a little light on their cancer journeys helps me cope, too.

Votive candles are often lit in remembrance of loved ones. I have, for example, lit many a candle for my brother John Henry, who died of cancer at a young age. Whenever I find myself in a cathedral, from New York to Rome, I light a candle for him. Sometimes, in my own home, I light candles too.

Surely tomes have been written about the religious implications of candlelighting, but my personal belief is that the act of lighting accents a memory and creates a bright spot to shine on an absence. The candle’s flame can be meditative, too, inviting in memories.

At any rate, lighting a candle for somebody who has passed is not unusual. Lately I have been lighting candles for people who are alive. It started because instead of saying, “I will pray for you,” although I say that sometimes, I generally say “I will hold you in the light.”

Symbolic gestures can be reassuring, even if there is no magic in the candles. Still, there they are, on my mantel, an army of candles. Some are plain. One is adorned with colorful skulls associated with Day of the Dead celebrations. Another pictures the Virgin Mary, in this case called Maria Milagros (mother of miracles). I bought these candles to light for friends experiencing health issues.

The most recent candle to arrive is one with a decal of St. Jude, added for a friend recently diagnosed with cancer. This choice was symbolic, just as my choice of others was relevant to specific individuals, I light candles for some evenings.

I knew all about St. Jude’s Hospital, which treats pediatric cancers and other childhood diseases, but never knew all that much about St. Jude himself, despite being the child of both a Catholic and a Methodist who attended Sunday school in both churches.

St. Jude, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, is known as the patron saint of hope and lost causes. Learning that, I realized why the hospital is named after him and why a candle with his image and prayer, even if I went a bit out of my own religious comfort zone to buy it, is a good fit for someone in the early stages of cancer survivorship.

With any disease, there can be a dark night of the soul, a descent into worry and fear and even glimmers of despair. Even I, as perky as I try to be, let myself wail one evening a few days after my own mastectomy, one of those primal cries best let loose in a desert or your own bathtub when nobody is nearby. I had to wail to let the pain go. I had to allow hope in to compete with my fear.

Letting the fear go so we can let hope in, as St. Jude reminds us, is what we need when there is a cancer diagnosis. Letting our own fear go when we worry about those we love is also a good idea, as we can better help others if we are not stunned by the circumstances that remind us that humans are mortal, the flesh frail at times, cancer (and other diseases) as pernicious as a blight on the hypothetical last tree growing on earth.

Contemplating my candles, I have begun to realize that their flames are as much for me as for my friends. I need to hope their cancer journeys will be lit by a reasonable hope, whatever the diagnosis, wherever the path goes.

While I hope my mantel does not become too cluttered with candles, this holiday season will feel brighter when I see them there, flickering with my own unvoiced prayers. Let hope spring eternal. Let us hold the weary in the light.


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