In Chemoworld

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

Another world: Watkins Glen State Park, New York. SJG photo.

Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone. – Thomas Merton

The moment the elevator door opens on the seventh floor and I enter the treatment center, I feel as if I am in a different world from the one where I spend the rest of my days and nights. It’s different for a number of reasons: the place itself, my fellow travelers in treatment, and my own state of mind and spirit. Chemoworld, I call it.

The center, although part of a massive, modern and sprawling medical center in St. Louis’ urban and trendy central west end, is generally quiet, and the people around me seem (again, generally) pretty unaffected, at least for a time, by the world outside the walls of the center. The economy may be falling apart, political candidates and parties may be railing against each other, and war may be raging in far-flung regions of the world, but for a few hours none of that matters as much as the battle being fought between life and death in our own bodies. As killer chemicals are sent racing and screaming into our bodies like tiny Kamikaze pilots on a mission, we’re in a different world.

I realize that, so far at least, I have been luckier than many in that my treatments are relatively quick affairs. I’m usually in and out within an hour or two and, while the treatments themselves make me weak and achy for a few days, I’m well aware that many others are not as fortunate. All that could change for me tomorrow, of course. For now, though, I am blessed.

But whatever the length and intensity of my time in Chemoworld, it’s safe to say I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone. Still, I have tried to make the best of the time as a short period of quiet, introspection, meditation and prayer. I realize that many of my fellow travelers to Chemoworld find comfort and peace by having a loved one at their side during treatment. That time of intimacy between two people can be extremely valuable and needed. My wife asked me if I wanted her to accompany me, but I have opted to go it alone, partially so that I wouldn’t be burdening her with one more obligation (although obviously she doesn’t see it that way), but additionally because I enjoy and need the quiet time to think, pray or read. That’s my choice and I realize it’s not everyone’s, and I also know that my own desire to have her there beside me might change over time and circumstances.

Time alone: Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos. SJG photo

Chemoworld is no day at the beach. For many it is worse than the disease itself. But I have found that it can be a brief respite and time apart. So if I’m not the chattiest of patients with my caregivers and the other patients around me, it’s because I have come to appreciate and savor the relative quiet. There’s nothing I enjoy better than good conversation, but I’m also not one for small talk. I don’t talk much to my barber or the person next to me on an airplane, either. That’s just me.

In any case, this whole experience in Chemoworld has been a good reminder of something that I know well but often forget: God calls us – and even encourages us through the example of Jesus – to make time to get away and spend time alone with Him. These “desert” experiences are essential for our spiritual growth, and I have found that to be particularly true during the time of illness and treatment. In fact, “desert” or “wilderness” may just be the perfect metaphor for the experience of chemotherapy.

We go into the desert to be cleansed and refreshed. We go into the desert to relocate our center and reestablish our bonds with our inner life and our God who resides there. Often, we can only hear that most inner part of ourselves when we move away from the world, when we quiet the screaming voices of advertisers and co-workers and even family members, and go off by ourselves to listen to that quiet inner voice. For it is there we hear our true selves, it is there we hear and can understand what God is saying and what it is he might be calling us to do. We just need to listen.

Up next: Grappling with life’s numb moments.

I will be giving a retreat based on my book this summer from July 14 – 16 at the Marianist Retreat and Conference Center just outside St. Louis. “Embraced by God” will be a weekend retreat exploring the spirituality of living with cancer and other chronic diseases. For more information, visit: http://mretreat.org

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