Posted on September 2, 2021 by Rev. Andrew Johnson
“Thhhurd, thhhurd, thhhurd.”
That’s the sound the IV pump makes when it’s injecting corrosive chemotherapy into your veins. It’s not loud, but it’s consistent. It’s beat breaks into the silence of the hospital room. With every churn of the machine, you realize more medicine seeps into your body along with more pain, nausea, stress, and trauma. I can still hear the pumps today.
Dealing with cancer twice has deeply affected how I see life as well as how I see myself. A Bible scholar wrote in connection to one of the Beatitudes: “Pain rearranges priorities.” No joke!
Since cancer drastically rattles our wellbeing, cancer affords you an opportunity for radical reflection. Again, the same Bible scholar wrote, “Christians [and all people for that matter] are never urged to seek suffering; they are, however, encouraged to recognize that suffering is an extraordinary teacher.” Again, no joke! Cancer diagnoses teach us things about ourselves we’d ordinarily be unable to see.
If you have dealt with cancer, if you’ve walked alongside someone who has had cancer, or if you’re currently in the midst of battling cancer, here are 3 reasons it might be time to receive either Pastoral Counseling or Professional Counseling.
The first time I underwent surgery and chemo for testicular cancer, I was just about to turn 20. The second time, I was just beginning my career as a Pastor. There were unique losses that came with both phases of my life.
The first time, I was removed from the ROTC Army program due to my inability to meet physical Army standards. Being removed from the program shook me to my core; I lost my primary college scholarship as well as what I’d dreamed would lead to a lifelong career serving in the military. I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay for college; simultaneously, my dreams for the future were shredded. The second go-through prevented a fresh-out-of-the-seminary pastor from preaching and serving; it’s all I wanted to do. But I was benched. I wasn’t sure I was going to continue as a pastor just a couple of months into the Divine Gig.
On top of that, due to the nature of the cancer, intimate parts of my body were invaded by strangers (well-meaning strangers like doctors mind you, but strangers all the same). Decisions about my physical well-being were placed in the hands of others. I felt like I had lost control of my body. My mouth was metallic from the drugs, and food didn’t taste right. I was throwing up daily in college, and when I experienced chemo the second time, every time I went to the bathroom I threw up. So, when I get a cold now it’s a breeze, because I can confidently say, “This is nothing compared to how I’ve felt in the past.”
Plus, my body was sore from surgery. Again, due to the nature of my cancer, I wasn’t supposed to lift anything over ten pounds post-surgery. I went up to my dorm room to retrieve a basket of clothing because I was going home to rest for the week. I bent down to pick up the basket, which was nowhere near ten pounds. An electric charge zapped through my body; I had never felt pain like that before.
All this said, the treatment of cancer can destroy your body, dreams, and hopes. Your ability to make basic decisions is no longer yours. That’s painful. Looking for silver-linings or pretending like what you’re experiencing is no big deal is a little insulting. Your cancer is detrimental. Why not treat it as such? Finding a pastor or counselor will allow you to ache and grieve in ways that are appropriate. So rather than bursting out at somebody who is trying to help you like a child or spouse or friend, your counselor becomes a confidante that can hear you lament your lament-worthy experiences. Lutheran Family Service counselors can even equip you with techniques that will help you deal with cancer related trauma.
Either way, seeking a counselor will provide you the appropriate and necessary space to ache your physical, emotional, and spiritual losses.
There are some days where I feel overwhelmed by what I need to accomplish. My wife, who is very wise, tells me to make a list. Then I cross stuff off, and I feel like I’m getting somewhere.
When I lost my ROTC scholarship, I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay for college. When I was benched from preaching and leading worship as a young new pastor, I wasn’t sure how I was going to move forward for the sake of my congregation. The diagnosis was too much to bear physically, but there were also all the little life things I had to figure out – like paying bills and what not.
Having a counselor walk alongside you can bring clarity into what is already a cancer induced fog. You may not see a way of moving forward, but God has provided navigators in pastors, church workers, and counselors who can provide you with the periphery vision you lack.
When you feel like you have to sprint a mile – in this case that means figuring out who’s going to do the chores; talking to HR at work; who’s going to do dinner; how are the bills going to get paid; will I handle the chemo well (what if I don’t handle the chemo well). A counselor can come alongside with you to identify reasonable steps you can take as you deal with or process that which seems unmanageable. Counselors can help you arrange your life in a healthy way that makes sense; that makes you feel like you’re making progress; and, is healthy in terms of your spiritual and emotional wellbeing.
Medical moments like cancer reveal the things we’ve been trusting in too much. For me, I was trusting in my plans for the future. So, when ROTC was taken out of the picture, I crumbled. Then, when I was starting out fresh as a new pastor, I wanted to be a pastor and preach and lead worship and everything else. But, when I was benched due to the chemo regimen, and I had to allow other pastors to fill in, I crumbled again.
Why did I crumble? I had made my plans and objectives the focus of my life. In the process, I had forgotten God. I had made a functional idol out of hopes for my congregation. I was sure I was supposed to save my people from shutting their doors, but God had other plans. Instead, the congregation was able to save me – they gave me the care I needed (e.g. meals, time off, financial support).
You may also need to apologize for making cancer a badge of honor. It’s all too easy to make your dealing with cancer your identity (i.e. the thing that validates your existence). People will applaud your ability to stand up to a terrible disease. The problem; however, is that if that becomes your “cross,” it will not last. After the treatments and surgeries are done, it gets a little old if you’re always bringing up your cancer battle (kinda like a 50-year-old sporting his lettermen’s jacket and bragging about the state championship decades earlier). You need an identity that transcends your cancer. You may need room to confess your throwing internal “pity parties” or your trusting in your ability to combat cancer.
Cancer can often expose the cracks in our faith. So, a fresh opportunity to apologize, or what we call in the Church to “repent,” presents itself. I was able to apologize to God for taking Him for granted. I was also able to reevaluate my relationship with my spouse, fellow pastors, congregation, and family.
Working with a counselor to identify these cracks can be one of the most liberating things you do! Whether we like it or not, suffering on account of cancer is an opportunity to refocus and repent. Lutheran Family Service counselors can get you where you need to go to hear real forgiveness.
Cancer is huge (that might be the understatement of the century). So huge that it might be useful to go through that experience with a professional counselor. Lutheran Family Service is ready to provide listening ears which can help you to ache, arrange, and possibly even apologize during such a radical medical moment in your life. Reach out today via our web contact form HERE.
Rev. Andrew Johnson
Lutheran Family Service – Congregational Services
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