*** DEBUG END ***

Looking to Calvary as a cancer patient  

31 March 2017

Caroline Bowder on parallels drawn for purposes of healing

Cancer: A pilgrim companion

Gillian Straine

SPCK £9.99


Church Times Bookshop £9


AS A cancer survivor (I wrote a play about it, The Body, 2012), I welcome a book about how to deal with this daunting disease. Gillian Straine’s book does it religiously.

She was diagnosed, at 21, with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and recounts, vividly, the stages of her cancer journey in parallel with Christ’s Passion and resurrection. With a background in Physics, the Revd Dr Straine is Director of the Guild of Health and St Raphael, based at St Marylebone Parish Church in London. The book has five chapter headings: Landscape, Diagnosis, Treatment, The Vigil, and Resurrection.

Landscape: what cancer is — a taboo subject, a dark cloud — and how it changes your identity. Of various metaphors for cancer — enemy invasion, punishment for bad habits, the body attacking itself, or the sufferer’s negative “cancer personality” — Straine’s preferred interpretation is a journey or pilgrimage.

Diagnosis: “The diagnosis is our passport into the world of the ill.” Now in the “cancer club”, you are alone — perhaps abandoned by friends, who can’t deal with your illness. As in the Garden of Gethsemane, failed by his disciples, Jesus cried, Straine urges us to express our emotions. The body’s “boundaries” are “trampled over”.

Treatment: you will suffer, like Christ on Good Friday. “It’s not easy being the person who makes other people think of death.” Painful intravenous chemotherapy and its side effects hold a “balance between killing the patient and killing cancer”; but “Suffering . . . is the cost of Freedom, not the price of bad behaviour,” because God as Christ suffers with you.

The vigil: after Good Friday, the waiting. Post-treatment: the guilt of survival, the end of medical attention. “Remission” is forgiveness, freeing from slavery. But cancer might return, having become part of one’s identity. Cancer creates dualism, “me against the alien invader”, even “Me against myself”. The healing process requires time for yourself and God.

Resurrection: after her remission, Straine decides to train for the priesthood, reassessing her experiences theologically. Finally, she revisits her specialist Hodgkins nurse, Jeff, who administered her painful treatment. Cancer was her cross, but Jeff was a faithful witness. Now she seeks resolution by writing about it.

Only a few niggles. In quoting the famous madeleine passage in Proust, please get the protagonist right. Also a slight muddle about different words for Peace. Pax Romana was not “the motto of the Roman Army” (SPQR?), and the NT Greek word ε?ρ?νη needs checking.

This searching, wise book gives valuable guidelines. Straine challenges cancer survivors to “create communities of healing” — she reflects this in her work — and to know that God loves us, whatever happens to our bodies.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)