The Transforming Power of Illness: Three Cancer Survivors Find Strength in Faith
By Susan Passi-Klaus
"I think our perception of illness, especially cancer, is that it is a weakening of self - that the person who is ill is less than the person they were before. But quite frequently I think people are more than they were before, especially on the emotional and spiritual levels." - Ray Buckley, director of the Native People Communication Office of the United Methodist Church
(UMCom) -- The common ground in the lives of Ray Buckley, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Caroline Hale is that the illness that once wreaked havoc on their bodies has become medicine for their souls.
Ray is a writer of children’s stories. Beth is a composer of songs. And Caroline is a teen-ager who has barely begun to create her own life.
They each have different tales to tell, but one chapter in each begins with the same transforming words: "You have cancer."
For Ray Buckley, a member of the Lakota Sioux/Tlingit tribes, who echoes the voices of his people in his writings in several United Methodist publications and children’s books, it was testicular cancer that became a catalyst for spiritual healing. Add the terrifying diagnosis to simmering grief after losing his wife, Sally, and his son, Jason, in a tragic accident, and few would begrudge the 47-year-old Alaskan for a lapse in faith.
"I don’t think we expect to lose a loved one or to suffer from a serious illness," Buckley reflects. "In our culture there’s the life we measure when everything is well and perfect, and then there’s the Other thing - the Other with a capital O - when there’s disease or death. But the fact is that death is woven in with life, and when you’re going through those weavings you simply find a way to deal with the things that have been given to you."
For Nielsen Chapman, 47, a singer and songwriter with gold and platinum albums crowding her office walls in Nashville, Tenn., it was breast cancer that interrupted a brief reprieve from sorrow. When told of her test results, Nielsen Chapman, who six years earlier had lost her husband to a rare form of lymphoma, remembers thinking, "Wait a minute, there’s been a mistake here. Somebody has given me the wrong fate."
"Edward’s death was overwhelming and totally devastating," says Nielsen Chapman, who penned Faith Hill’s hit "This Kiss." "And yet, I somehow got through it. I managed to get up in the morning and somehow make it through the day. I’d feel my life moving forward and wonder how it was possible."
And for Caroline Hale, 17 and a high school senior in Nashville, it was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that introduced her to people who have become close companions and has set her upon a lifelong course dedicated to giving back. When she was just 13 years old, doctors found a tumor wrapped around her spinal chord. Her only symptom had been a backache that wouldn’t go away.
"Looking back on my life before cancer I didn’t realize just how good I had it," Caroline remembers. "I was very athletic. I had a strong social life and a great group of friends. And my grades were good. It’s kind of strange how going through a bad time can make one really learn to appreciate the little things in life."
In "Angels By My Side," from her CD titled "Deeper Still," Nielsen Chapman wrote and sings a song Buckley and Caroline surely can identify with.
"Cross my heart I hope to live
Opening my sorrows gifts,
Laughing as I cry…
"Vulnerability," Nielsen Chapman explains, "is a gift."
Finding peace in the midst of pain isn’t easy to explain, especially in a contemporary culture that measures the quality of life by the ease in which we get through the messy details of day-to-day.
When Buckley’s cancer subsided and returned, then lingered longer than friends and family could make spiritual sense of, he had to lend them a little of his own faith.
"I believe that God always heals but doesn’t always change the circumstances," he often told others.
"Healing happens, but the healing that happens is the ability not to fear the cancer. And the healing that happens is the ability to find life. Healing comes in sensing the strong presence of God."
For Caroline, it’s because others brought light into her darkness that she wants to illuminate the lives of other cancer patients.
"As cliché as it might sound," the teen-ager says, "I can’t help but say that cancer has taught me the value of helping others. I know for a fact I will be lifelong friends with my nurses and doctors, as well as other patients and caretakers, and I feel so blessed that God planned for them to cross my path. Now I hope He’ll put me in the lives of others going through a similar circumstance."
Ray translates an Native American metaphor into a Christian lesson in divine paradox, sharing wisdom that often is a byproduct of change.
"My people would say, ‘God changes our name.’ We become different, ongoing, growing people," he says.
"In the process of life, we get to the side of one thing that we thought 20 years ago would have scared us to death, and we look back and we’ve come through it and it doesn’t scare us nearly as much anymore, and we’re able to help others get through those same circumstances."
"What those of us who have lost loved ones or dealt with disease are so blessed to discover is that although life changes, life still goes on."
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Susan Passi-Klaus is a free-lance writer living in Nashville, Tenn., and publisher of Cracked Pots, an inspirational newsletter for women.
Photo of Caroline Hale courtesy of Dana Johnson/Vanderbilt