Cancer: A pilgrim companion
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.