Spiritual Advice for Surviving Cancer and Other Disasters

This piece was originally published in The Washington Post on August 9, 2016. 

 

An oncologist briskly walks into the consultation room, greets me and my wife, double-checks his chart and pulls up a computer image.

“It’s cancer,” he says.

As the shock starts to wear off, I cry. My oncologist tries to engage me in small talk. “What is it you do for a living?” he asks. I inform him that I’m a college professor and that I do disaster research. After a slight pause, he replies, “Looks like you’re in for your own personal disaster.” At age 35, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer that had spread to my pelvis. For the first six months, whenever I asked for a prognosis, all my oncologist would say was: “I can’t tell you that it’s going to be okay, Jamie. It’s too early to tell. If there’s anyone you want to see or anything you want to do, now is the time.”

After the most challenging year of my life going through grueling treatments, I’m thankful to be writing this three years later in remission. Cancer wasn’t the first disaster I faced. My family and I had moved to South  Mississippi six days before Hurricane Katrina. But this disaster was different. There was no opportunity to evacuate as I did before Katrina made landfall. This time the disaster was striking within: I was a walking disaster. What I had studied  in mass disaster zones around the globe seemed to play out in my own life. My disaster work taught me about cultivating faith and resilience in times of personal crisis. Cancer taught me these lessons in a whole new way.

Seek spiritual community

Whether we like it or not, we all need community. For example, when my colleagues and I conducted a study after the 2015 South Carolina floods, we found positive spiritual support was an important predictor of disaster resilience. When a natural disaster strikes, people can see that your home was knocked down. However, the signs of hurt aren’t always noticeable when it comes to personal disasters. If we don’t share what is going on in our lives, others may not know what we are going through. Shortly after I made my diagnosis public, a colleague stopped by my home to pray with me. I confessed that I didn’t like being the type of person who needs help. He replied, “We don’t like to admit it to ourselves, Jamie, but we are all the type of people who need help.”

I learned that we have the ability to choose: to let pain isolate us from others or to unite us. I don’t think I would be here today had it not been for the spiritual support of my wife, daughters, friends, family, colleagues, students and church.

Engage in spiritual surrender

Spiritual surrender helps us understand what we have control over and what we don’t. In a study I led after Katrina, we found that people who showed higher levels of spiritual surrender tended to do better. This finding didn’t make sense to me at the time. It seemed like a passive faith response. I thought “Spiritual Surrender” sounded like the title of a bad country song. Fast forward to my cancer disaster. I vividly remember taking the trash to the curb one winter morning while praying that God would heal me. The freezing air felt like tiny razor blades cutting across my hands and feet because of the nerve sensitivity caused by chemotherapy. Wondering if God even heard my prayers for healing, I kept praying as I walked back inside my home. Then all of a sudden I dropped to my knees and prayed the most challenging prayer of my life. Instead of continuing to pray for God’s healing, I asked that God would take care of my wife and children if I didn’t make it.

This was the hardest prayer I had ever prayed. For the first time in my life, I truly experienced spiritual surrender. I finally understood. True spiritual surrender is far from passive — it is a willful act of obedience.

Make meaning of your experience

Most of us operate from what some researchers refer to as a “just” worldview. We tend to believe that if we are good, good things will happen. It’s difficult, then, to make meaning when bad things happen to us. I went to the doctor for tests because of shooting pains in my leg. I never dreamed it was from a mass sitting on a nerve bundle in my pelvis. It was difficult for me to wrap my head around what had happened. Thoughts like, “Wasn’t I a good person?” plagued me.

A colleague of mine deployed to help with a relief agency after Superstorm Sandy, and she met a man whose roof had been blown away by gale-strength winds. This man surprised the relief team with an optimistic quip: “Sometimes you have to lose the roof,” he said, “to see the stars.” There is a man who knows how to find meaning in loss.

My colleagues and I have interviewed and surveyed disaster survivors about their views of God in the wake of catastrophe. We have found that you can have two people who go through almost identical losses, with one believing God saved them, while the other believes God is punishing them.

Remember, they went through the same disaster. But in a forthcoming volume of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, we found that the person who doesn’t find positive meaning is likely to struggle a great deal more.

I encourage you: Even in the worst moments, look for the stars.

Know that God is capable of redeeming your pain

God can redeem our pain, no matter how deep the emotional or physical scars. In Congo, I learned of the plight of the people of Goma. They survived genocide and war, only to have their homes destroyed by a volcano. The survivors returned to the region to rebuild, but this time they made their houses from what had been spewed by the volcano. They found beauty in the ashes.

In the same way, God can work with our brokenness. Some time back, my youngest daughter was walking by my room. I was standing in front of the mirror buttoning my shirt. I saw her reflection as she paused to survey the scars on my chest and torso left by the surgeon’s blade. I felt very self-conscious in that moment, as I often struggle with how my surgeries have changed my body. Then I heard this soft and tender voice come from the hallway. My daughter asked me if I would have my scars in heaven.

I replied: “No, sweetie. God will give Daddy a new body. There will be no more scars.”

She smiled a giant smile and exclaimed, “YES!”

 

Jamie D. Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in  Illinois. He is also the co-author of the new “Disaster Ministry Handbook.” He has previously written for  Acts of Faith about helping a loved one after a tragedy.