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My search for release

19 April 2013

For Gillian Straine, being told that she was in remission from cancer was, for many years, a Holy Saturday experience

New life: Dr Gillian Straine with her son, Max

New life: Dr Gillian Straine with her son, Max

ON 27 February 2001, my consultant haematologist gave me the news that there was no longer any active cancer in my body. The previously tennis-ball-sized tumour in my chest cavity had shrunk to scar tissue, and the once protruding lump in my neck had disappeared.

Over the previous six months, I had sweated in shock after a bone-marrow aspiration, endured 12 doses of chemotherapy so toxic that the nurse administering it had to wear protective clothing, and had watched as my hair and eyebrows fell out.

But, now, I was "in remission". Remission. I chewed the word over slowly as I left the hospital. I phoned my parents. They were delighted. Without knowing where to go, I wandered into Starbucks, alone, and sat silently, nursing a coffee. I texted a few friends, and was disappointed with their replies, which were along the lines of: "Great news. Now you can get on with your life."

Since my first confusing hospital appointment, and the terrifying internet searches for information on "Hodgkin's lymphoma", I had wished for this moment. And that morning's appointment with my consultant meant that I could now call myself a "survivor"; I had won my "battle", aged 21.

Instead, I sat looking out of a window on a drab February day, feeling defeated, because it was only then that I realised that being "in remission" did not mean that my experience of having cancer was finished, because, since I did not know why I had developed it in the first place, I didn't know how to ensure that it never came back.

ENSURING that cancer goes into remission is the proper hope of oncologists and patients alike. The psychological and spiritual problems of living in remission, however, are rarely explored. As the numbers of survivors increase, this is an area that is crying out for some consideration.

Some react to remission with joy; others suffer depression. Others suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as the experience, which begins at diagnosis, continues well beyond the end of treatment, with flashbacks and depression. For some, the world seems more dangerous, the possibility of serendipity too frightening, and a new post-cancer identity needs time to emerge.

Cancer is a disease that is burdened by taboos. People don't really like to talk about it. For me, the loneliness of the disease continued, and I felt unable to articulate how my experience had changed me. I had my life back, but I didn't know what to do with it.

Cancer had knocked my life-plan off-course. I had changed somehow; getting on with my life as it had been did not fit with me any more. And the chemo-suite cry of dereliction - "Why me?" - continued to resonate for years.

In its popular understanding, cancer eats you up, like a "demonic pregnancy" as St Jerome put it. The typical way of talking about cancer is as a battle which must be fought - as if, by sheer will, uncontrolled cellular multiplication could be defeated. The corollary, of course, is that if the cancer "wins", it is because the person with it did not fight hard enough.

I did not feel as if I had won a battle - I might just as easily have died. On paper, my story was one of victory, but I didn't believe my own Disney ending, because it didn't feel as if I had been given a "happily ever after".

"REMISSION" is an odd term. For the penitent, it can mean the state of grace that follows the absolution of sins. In a medical sense, it is when the disease is no longer active. In both cases, it has a sense of the pregnant pause. The one who is in remission holds his or her breath, waiting for the sin to return, or for the disease to sweep back. It is a word that says, "Yes, but . . .".

For Christians, who proclaim the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the question is: can remaining in a constant state of fear ever be the end of the story? We know that there is hope in life, as in death, and that new life in Christ, through faith, is always on offer to us. But that new life may not spring up immediately.

For older people who survive cancer, remission can often seem to give a new lease of life. But for younger people, who have not yet fully formed their identity, it can be more bewildering.

For me, it took many years, aided by five years of psychotherapy. And that's OK. There are many precedents of waiting for a resurrection - not least in the Gospels, which are all silent on what happened between Good Friday and the events of the first Easter morning. There is, after all, very little to say. Death demands silence.

In the Old Testament, death is typically described with words such as "darkness", "dust", "inactivity", "without joy", and "powerlessness". For me, these words draw close to how I felt in remission, as I tried, silently and subconsciously, to process my brush with death.

CHRIST came to earth, and pitched his tent with us, dying a real death. Holy Saturday is when Christians contemplate this death, usually in quietness and grief as we watch and wait, however uncomfortable that make us feel.

Like the disciples, those trapped by remission can be silenced by their experience as they, too, live suspended between two worlds, between death and resurrection. Jesus triumphed, and set us free from the prison of sin and death; but Holy Saturday came first. The Sunday required the Saturday.

For those dealing with this experience, it can seem to be a place of dereliction and loneliness, but the Christian narrative tells us that this is not the case.

Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that Jesus has "solidarity with the dead" because of his real death (solidarity meaning "being solitary like, and with, others"). This paradoxical idea means that Christ is with those struggling in remission, irrespective of the genuine feelings of being alone.

In the negativity that can accompany remission, real healing can emerge, because Christ was truly dead, and, in that passive and negative state, the incomprehensible still happened.

ABOUT seven years after that February morning, I travelled back to the chemo suite and met my nurse again. I was in my last year of ordination training - having followed the sense of calling that had grown after the "dust had settled" on my remission - and felt that, in preparation for holding funerals and dealing with death, I needed to resolve some things.

We talked about it all, and I remembered. And then, something unexpected happened: I felt at peace about my cancer for the first time.

In returning, I had, in a way, gone back to the place of death, and, rather than finding it a place of terror, I encountered there companionship and new life. What I had done, unknowingly, was to live out a reunion within myself.

Lord Williams of Oystermouth holds that health is restored by finding peace between body and spirit; and healing is about making connections between self and body, between past and present, between physical reality and future hopes.

The Hebrew word that is translated into the English word "remission" means "release", or "letting go". With my story of cancer, I found that I had released myself from its affliction, and that the experience was somehow resurrected, and I was released to new life.

The Oxford theologian Professor Paul Fiddes writes that resurrection is a protest against the present reality. My glimpse of resurrection life is but through a glass darkly, and the fuller experience is yet to come. But such is part of God's plan for each of us: whether our bodies have disease or are in remission, he desires us to have life, and to have it in abundance.

The Revd Dr Gillian Straine lives in north London, and is currently on maternity leave.

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