There’s No Gift Like Cancer?

This is what a hospice nurse said the patient said:

“My cancer is a gift from God.”

What is your first reaction to that? How about something like, You’ve got to be kidding!

Or . . . Does that patient have a terminal and mental illness? Or you’d be speechless and roll your eyes . . . or shake your head and mutter several tsk-tsks . . . or clamp your jaw shut because Mom told you that if you didn’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.

Or would you nod your head in reluctant agreement?

Can you imagine that last reaction—nodding and agreeing—to the patient’s pronouncement? I can, though it helped to hear the nurse’s report of the patient’s complete sentence . . .

“My cancer is a gift from God because it has brought my children closer.”

So far, in my not-so-young life, I’ve had several modest traumatic events that became change agents in my attitude toward self, others, and the world. One happened in the year I turned thirty: my left leg smashed into an outcropping of granite during a tumble down a mountain slope. Multiple bones were broken. I ended up in a cast for months, dependent upon other people for most of the recovery time.

Before that flesh and bone break, a divorce from five years before had splintered my soul. I often doubted myself, sometimes loathed myself, and careened between thinking today was miserable but tomorrow could get worse. It wasn’t just the divorce; there were other negatives that weighed me down. Nonetheless, I figured to “tough it out” on my own.

But the leg break broke me. I became dependent. I saw people and each day (and me) with different, more forgiving eyes.

A token broken leg is nothing compared to a fatal cancer diagnosis. Except that both may open literal eyes and metaphoric hearts.

I never knew the details about that patient or the family. Families can wallow in a history of poor communication. Families have children or parents or both that have battled each other for years. A family’s lack of mutual support could be as mundane as the adult children living in different area codes. A family’s troubles can include complexities like a gay son coming out to religiously conservative parents or a parent’s second marriage to someone that irks all of the kids. Some anger can be explained. Some can’t. In his honest “The Four Things That Matter Most,” hospice physician Ira Byock wrote, “I have long thought that the phrase dysfunctional family is redundant.”

Oh, how I agree! Family = dysfunction!

Why does it take a crisis to change us? Why does it take a calamity to nudge one person to appreciate the other? Why does a family, whether amusingly or disastrously dysfunctional, come together when the worst occurs to a parent or sibling?

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a traumatic event like cancer will transform a family’s ancient anger or fresh fears. But often enough, the terrible or tragic spawns hope. I think that’s what was unfolding with our patient. With a relentless, opportunistic cancer destroying a parent’s body, the children put aside differences and worked together. They drove long miles or crossed emotional thresholds to support the “whole family.”

I would never suggest that cancer was a “gift from God” (because I don’t believe God causes cancer to happen to people), but I understand the parent’s declaration.

Even when we seem to have exhausted all choices, our next choices will matter. How we use words to abuse or affirm, how we open or close our arms, and through our risks to forgive or by our refusals to forget, will all make a lasting, living difference.

At some point in a future that will arrive too fast, I will hear that this patient has died. A death certificate will probably list a grim disease and an obituary may provide a few sparse details. But in the particular parent’s final weeks or months—and I’m confident about this—love will be shared with children, and memories will be created that may help bring new life to a hurting (and yes, dysfunctional) family in the time following death.

Cancer as . . . a gift?

Why do we—why do you, why do I—so often wait for the worst before we finally embrace the best?

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. My parents’ cancer was a gift from God to me for sure. It helped me understand the dynamics of my family, both nuclear and extended. It did nothing to pull my family closer and in due course, we splintered and disconnected almost completely. The blessing was that that process had been happening slowly and quietly, and being the family fixer, I made it my mission to keep everyone connected. The cancer diagnosis became a catalyst. In the midst of the illness I could not understand all that was happening but looking back after the dust settled, I understood that the same outcome could have been a slow awful draining of my soul instead of the sting of losing not just a parent. Ultimately there was no other possible outcome and getting there when we did and as we did was for the best . Not all outcomes are storybook but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.

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