Facing the Disaster of Cancer

Interview with Jamie Aten by Nigel Bovey

This piece was originally published in The Salvation Army's The War Cry (United Kingdom) on February 27, 2016.

Dr Jamie Aten is Rech Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, Illinois, where he helped found and co-directs the Humanitarian Disaster Institute. His specialist subject is the psychology of religion and disasters. His interest is more than academic; it is personal. In 2013, aged 35, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Before I went in for the first batch of tests, my doctor told me that in someone my age, the probability of my illness being cancer was less than 1 per cent. As I was coming round from the anesthetic, I heard the doctor tell my wife it was stage-four colon cancer.

I asked the oncologist for the prognosis. He said: ‘This is serious. I can’t tell you that it’s going to be OK.’ On every visit for the next six months, I’d ask the same question, and he’d give me the same answer.

My oncologist didn’t show much optimism. I knew that there was a long battle ahead, but I wasn’t sure how long it would be. I didn’t know if I was going to make it.

I held on to the belief that I would beat this disease. At the same time, I prayed often to God for healing. After a while, my prayer changed. I asked God to let me live long enough to see my girls grow up. They were five, eight and twelve at the time. Then I would pray: Dear God, help me live through the year.

There were times when I felt that death must be easier than what I was going through. Sometimes, the pain was so great that I thought I was dying. I had times where if I'm honest, that I wanted to give up. But for the sake of my wife and daughters, I couldn’t give up. I didn’t want my girls in later life not to have their own memories of their father. The thought of that possibility drove me to tears and made me fight.

I was in many ways a walking disaster. I saw many of the things I had studied for years in disaster survivors being played out in my own life. The one thing that was clear to me was that if I was going to beat this cancer, I needed to focus on the here and now. I tried to focus on what I needed to do to get to the next stage. But many days, I failed.

One of the hardest periods was when I had chemo and radiotherapy at the same time, followed by major surgery. It took two months to recover from the surgery. It was outright difficult. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.

After reassessment, I found out that I was going to have to go through another six or seven months of chemo. At that point, I didn’t know how I could face it. I felt as if my world had ended.

I wasn’t worried about going bald. But a while back I was going through my journal and I saw I had scribbled in the corner of an entry that I really didn’t want to lose my beard. Thankfully, I didn’t. After I was reminded of this in my journal, I started growing out my beard as my symbol of being alive. I jokingly refer to it as my resilience beard.

The sickness from my chemo was tough and made me very tired. I struggled with normal life. I had very little energy. I couldn’t remember things. My brain was like mush. I was so frustrated. I often struggled to function or to carry out the simplest tasks.

At times, I struggled to understand why I was ill. I wrestled with the unfairness of it all. I didn’t blame God, though there were periods when I felt numb towards him or distant from him. I sometimes wonder if I was angry with God but perhaps couldn’t allow myself to accept that I might feel that way.

The crunch came when I was praying one morning, asking God to heal me. Suddenly, I thought: ‘Do I really believe that God could heal me?’ Did I believe God could intervene or was I just using religious coping mechanisms? This was a strange, almost out-of-body, experience. Here I was, seemingly observing my experience the way I had observed others in my research. It was a metacognition type of moment.

The answer I received was that I had to surrender everything to God. I got on my knees and prayed.

For the first time, I was praying not for help or healing but that God would simply be with me and with my family, even if I didn’t make it.

Then it felt as if I was jolted back into the moment. I had a breakthrough. In that moment, I understood what people I had studied in my disaster research understood: that spiritual surrender in the face of disaster is not a passive giving-up; rather it is an active handing-over of control. As a person who likes to be in control, it was one of the most difficult prayers I’ve ever prayed.  

After six months of treatment, my oncologist said: ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.’ It wasn’t the greatest prognosis, but it was the first time since I’d been diagnosed that he told me something optimistic.

I’ve been in remission for just over a year. Medical expertise certainly played its part. God, too, was part of the healing. But I don’t understand it all. I have no answer as to why God healed me yet not somebody else. Every day, I feel blessed by my recovery. At the same time, I ache as I have seen others around me suffer with cancer.

As a result of my cancer experience, I have tried to recalibrate my priorities. I still struggle like everyone else with this. However, I have certain moments, like the other day, when I was starting to stress over a work deadline. Then I saw a status on Facebook that I had posted exactly two years earlier. It was a picture of me in the hospital, days after my cancer surgery.

Moments like that have a way of helping me to look beyond daily concerns and focus more on the transcendent. I have a strong sense that I need to live in a way that helps others, not because I feel I need to pay God back, but out of gratitude for his gift of life.

"Medical expertise played its part. God, too, was part of the healing."

Jamie was talking to Nigel Bovey.