Living With Incurable Cancer

As a lifelong Christian diagnosed with cancer, she almost assumed God owed her a cure. Instead, she reached a different understanding.

Posted in , Aug 27, 2018

Kate at home with her husband, Toban, and their son Zach.

I had hoped that God and I had a deal. I’d grown up in southern Manitoba province, Canada, surrounded by enough Mennonites to learn how to compliment tractor equipment and make a decent loaf of bread. I’d lucked into loving, faithful parents and a loving, faithful church. I’d even fallen in love with a boy at Bible camp and, to my great surprise, found he loved me back. Faith and happiness were intertwined. That was the deal. Work hard, stay right with God and life would work out somehow.

So often, with the right combination of hard work and hope, I found my life coming together. Toban—that boy from Bible camp—and I got married after college. I earned a master’s degree in the history of religion at Yale Divinity School and a Ph.D. at Duke University. Duke hired me as a professor straight out of grad school, a rarity in academia, where graduate students now worry that they might have a better chance of making a moon landing than finding a job. I had endured dark seasons of infertility and disability but, at last, was living the life I had hoped for.

Toban and I had a precocious and hilarious son, Zach. I published my first book—a study of the prosperity gospel movement, detailing the history of Christian beliefs about how good things must happen to good people. A central tenet of the prosperity gospel is that health and wealth are signs of God’s favor. The stronger your faith, the more God rewards you. Theologically speaking, I never thought I had much in common with the movement. But I couldn’t help concluding that God seemed to be rather pleased with my efforts. I was working hard and reaping the rewards. God was holding up his end of our implicit deal.

In 2015, the life I had imagined vanished with the news that I had Stage IV cancer. The abdominal pain suspected to be from a damaged gallbladder was, in fact, a large tumor. I was wheeled into emergency surgery for doctors to do what they could, but cancer had already run rampant through my body. I had thought my life was only beginning, and now I found myself sitting across from specialists speaking in low voices about how slim my chances were of surviving two years. I began to tally up my life: 13 years of marriage and a one-year-old child. My life would not last long enough to feel anything close to enough.

Lying in the hospital before surgery, I bargained furiously with God. Let me be a wife and mom and professor who lives to tell of your glory. I simply could not believe the God I knew—kind, just, powerful—would allow my life to come to a swift ending. And, worse, I could not believe that God would allow cancer to dismantle the lives of the people who loved me. God, didn’t we have some kind of deal?

Researching my book, I’d been struck by the fervency of many people’s faith in prosperity gospel churches. I knew intellectually that Christianity is founded on the idea of God’s grace enacted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Christians don’t earn reconciliation with God. God does the work and draws us to him.

Still, it was hard not to hope that parts of the prosperity gospel might be true: Perhaps hard spiritual work created its own rewards. The more I watched believers in prosperity churches, the more I was struck by their intense optimism that all obstacles could and would be overcome. And though I was only a scholarly observer of the movement, I saw so much of myself in them. Like any prosperity believer, I wanted to outwork any problem and defeat every odd. Anything standing between me and the life I wanted was merely a temporary setback. It had to be. After all, hadn’t I been a faithful Christian all along?

The most painful moment of realization came as I lay in my hospital bed, only hours after my diagnosis. I listened to the beeping of the heart rate monitor and stared down at my hospital gown, realizing that all my efforts had counted for nothing. I had weathered difficult times with a smile on my face. I had worked so hard to get my dream job. I had prayed and loved God wholeheartedly. But it had guaranteed me nothing. There was no deal with God that exempted me from tragedy, and I would find no magic formula to return me to the life I loved. The life I was losing.

After the surgery, I was discharged from the hospital and returned home with more questions than answers. It was possible that my cancer was a rare type that might respond to an experimental immunotherapy drug, but the treatment for it might as well have been on a distant planet. My health insurance company immediately refused to pay for the treatment, and the price for the drug was exorbitant. It took weeks of frantic phone calls and e-mails and help from friends who knew the health-care industry before I got a conditional approval to travel to the hospital offering the immunotherapy and meet with its doctors.

And while I tried to keep my spirits up, I was secretly exhausted. The harder I worked to secure access to the drug and pay the mounting bills, the more I realized that most factors that determined whether I would live were entirely out of my control.

The day I qualified to begin treatment in the experimental trial was one of the happiest in memory. I took a deep breath (okay, in full disclosure, I performed a short series of dance moves), hoping I was beating the odds stacked against me. And, in keeping with my inappropriately cheerful personality, I began to approach my new life as a cancer patient as if it were a career I had chosen. I joked. I laughed. I small-talked about the weather. I endured the indignity of wearing a fannypack filled with chemotherapy fluids by decorating it and forcing people to call it Little Jimmy because former President Jimmy Carter and I shared a similar chemotherapy schedule. I dutifully followed the tight regimen of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, blood work and scans, quietly hoping that, somehow, I was earning my way back to the life I had known.

But the rhythm of this treatment was relentless. Begin treatment. Manage side effects. Recover. Begin treatment. Every 60 days, the doctors would have me climb into an MRI machine for a scan. If the cancer was not progressing, they would smile and schedule another scan. I lived for two months at a time, then paused and began again.

One day, my oncologist drew a chart showing how, if I’d received only surgery and chemotherapy, the drugs would have begun to fade by now. The chart showed that people receiving immunotherapy survived longer, but the treatment was too new to know for certain just how much longer.

“No guarantees,” I said.

“Right,” he said.

I thought of all the recent things I would have missed if this had been my last summer. It would have been the last time we set up sprinklers in the lawn to watch Zach chasing Toban around barefoot in the grass. It would have been the last time I had sat on the floor in Zach’s room swapping out too—small clothes for new T-shirts that stretched over his big baby belly. The last wedding anniversary. The last toddler birthday. Ending after ending. I felt a moment of helpless rage. Couldn’t I have even an ounce of certainty? A longer lease on life than just two months?

Toban and I drove home from the oncologist’s office in silence. At every stage of my cancer, I had hoped that I was coming to grips with the precarious odds I’d been given. But how could I learn to live only two months at a time? For the rest of my life? Had I really given up on my deal with God? Or had I been quietly nurturing hope that it could be revived? With surgery or chemo? Or experimental trials?

The temptation of the deal had been there all along. And now I saw it for what it was: a desire for certainty. I had been hoping for control. Work hard, stay right with God and life will work out. The key word is that little and. Do this and you get that. Action, result—guaranteed. That’s control. Ever since my diagnosis, I had been praying hard. But Jesus, I had to admit, never says that God offers us certainty. Jesus says God offers us love. Could I love God even knowing I could die in two months?

Abandoning certainty has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. And I wish I could say that I don’t quietly miss the days when I was so sure that life is what you make it. I loved that feeling of progress, endless progress, as if God were always making a way. But I am filled with a kind of gratitude I never experienced before, one that is born from the sense that God will never leave me. As I surrender my desire to live “my best life now,” I find more joy in the imperfect world I see around me. God suffuses the moments that I might have missed before, moments when I can see that there are no more deals to be made. I need only stop, take a deep breath and let the beauty of every good thing seep in until my heart is full at last.

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