This October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month. You can consider me very aware, because I was diagnosed with Stage 3 metastatic breast cancer after getting a swollen lymph node checked out at the end of September. The next few days were a whirlwind of undergoing medical tests, delivering bad and incomplete news to family and friends, and looking out into the gaping void of the unknown. As my two preschool-aged kids asked me over and over again, "Mom, why do you have cancer?" I reflected on my life. I am 34 years old, I eat very healthily, exercise regularly, and don't smoke. I visit my doctor regularly for preventative wellness exams and have had suspicious breast lumps checked out several times in years past. There was nothing yet in the known world of healthcare that I could have done to either prevent or prepare me for cancer.
However, there is one thing that I believe is protective as I begin the next year of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation treatments. I have a strong connection with my spirituality. As I trained to be an interfaith hospital chaplain, I learned something interesting from the Spiritual Care departments of local hospitals: I learned that one's comfort level with spirituality can be predictive of how well one does during a medical crisis. It's not that atheists do poorly. In fact, agnostics and atheists who are content with their lack of spirituality do as well as those who are full of faith and happy about it. Those who struggle both physically and spiritually are people who already have a shaky understanding of their own spirituality and are thrown into further confusion by trauma and tragedy.
So, I'm not suggesting that you try to force your atheist grandma to find Jesus "for her health." However, if the person who is confused about spirituality sounds like you, I'd like to gently suggest that you explore your spirituality and fix that relationship with spirit before something unexpected and nasty challenges your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Think of it as a matter of personal housekeeping and dutiful preparation, just as you might have a savings plan for financial health during a crisis. I'd like to share a three personal ways that I believe my strengthening spirituality is helping me as I move forward.
I have three super powers: Resilience, resourcefulness, and the ability to adapt in the face of adversity. My three super powers are related to each other so much that they overlap, but they each interact with my spirituality in different ways. I've also noticed that, at times in my life when I struggled with my faith, I also was unable to activate my super powers. Again, I'm not saying that atheists or agnostics can't display these strengths equally marvelously as I. However, spirituality and my super powers are inextricably bound in the own fabric of my personality. If you might be like me, read on.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back after something awful knocks you down. Children are well-known for their resilience. Many people never seem to recover after something terrible in life happens, such as a divorce or a car accident, and it's not their fault. However, when resilience is possible, I believe that my strong spirituality aids its action. One way that spirituality can help is by giving a sense of purpose to life. Sure, I have cancer, but perhaps this challenge in life isn't even about me. Maybe the grand purpose of this cancer is so that I can help somebody else after I’m all done with treatment. Or maybe my cancer is an opportunity to overcome my fears. Or, maybe the absurdness of cancer is just to show what's truly important in life. I don't know for sure, but the habits of mind I've developed through my spiritualty keep me thinking about the future in a good way.
Resourcefulness is the act of finding opportunities for help everywhere. I'll admit that I like being independent and that delegating and giving up control during treatment are going to be hard for me. However, my spirituality is one way that I've been able to forge a connection with a wider support community. As a Wiccan, I have a coven of fellow practitioners that are like family to me. The positive, healing energy that I receive from my spiritual peers as well as the practical help they've offered, such as babysitting my children and just keeping me company, are awesome. Spirituality is one way that I can connect even with people of other faiths. Complete strangers have become new friends by simply asking whether they can pray for me. My answer is always yes! It may seem strange to some, but I believe that prayer can also be a sort of internal resource when I'm feeling lonely or when I just have to talk through a problem with a divine counselor. My gods are available twenty-four hours a day and are happy to listen to anything that I have to say.
My ability to adapt in the face of adversity is not quite the same as resilience. Resilience, to me, means being able to bounce back as strong or stronger than I was before the life challenge. Adapting to adversity means that I find a new normal. I know that my body will never quite be the same after cancer treatment begins, just as my body is not the same as it was before two pregnancies. Spirituality is a way for me to understand that I am more than just my body. This is not to say that one's physical body here on earth isn't an important part of spirituality. But, I feel better ready to celebrate and appreciate the amazing things my body can do because of my spirituality. For example, I know that I will be a beautiful Goddess even after my breasts and ovaries are removed.
So, I know that I have a rough time ahead of me. I'm glad that I put my spiritual house in order before all of this began. If you're looking for your own way to strengthen your spirituality, I encourage you to work on it before you have any sort of major crisis. I know it's easy to put off self-development when you're busy with work, kids, and bills. Believe me, I know. But if you set aside a little time each day for the importance of your spiritual devotions, it's like banking for later when you can make a major withdrawal. I pray that you or a loved one never gets cancer, but I know that each of us will have time to face that gaping void of uncertainty in the future. Be prepared by strengthening your relationship with spirit, and you'll never have to walk that path truly alone.