By Kathy Berken
This time, it’s not me; it’s my daughter Erica, who learned earlier this summer at age 42 that she has two different kinds of breast cancer. Frankly, none of us was surprised. Our family on all sides has a rampant history of cancer, particularly breast cancer, with ties straight through and beyond Erica’s great-grandmother.
Erica, who gave me permission to write her story, always expected to get cancer at some point; the only real surprise was that it was this early.
We now have one more thing to bond us. I received my first diagnosis in 2000, a year after moving into the L’Arche community in Clinton. Stage four with a 14 percent chance of survival. Then round two with cancer hit six years ago. I don’t remember many details, just that it was a different cancer, so, umm, that’s good?
I was so grateful that Erica and her husband Aaron took me in during my surgery and chemo in 2014, giving them far more experience and information about the disease than they may have wanted. However, when I sat in on a Zoom meeting with Erica’s doctor a month ago, it was eerily comforting to hear all those familiar terms and descriptions, with Erica telling her, “Yeah, I went through this with my mom six years ago. I know the drill.” I just had to smile.
So, where does God figure into all of this? You get real and you muster your wits, your faith and your courage but, as NBC news correspondent Betty Rollin’s 1976 book title says, “First, You Cry.” Because it’s my daughter this time, and I know somewhat the road she is going down. Hope for longevity has skyrocketed since Rollin’s book appeared and cancer equaled a death sentence. Should my 20 years and six years of survival give me enough hope? Absolutely!
Erica decided to get a bilateral mastectomy for prevention, a procedure that is more common now than 20 years ago when I should have opted for it. Hindsight, right? Erica’s decision is wise. She will always wonder about that other breast, she said, so “Let’s just get it over with and do it!”
Which brings me back to God, trust, doubt, fear, security, life and death. Faced with any kind of crisis, it’s best to be honest with how you feel. It’s what I tell the people I meet with for spiritual direction. It’s what my dad taught me when I was little. Be honest, never lie, be yourself, be down to earth and be real. That’s where God is.
I feel God’s presence in these raw moments. I prefer the freedom to be truthful about how we feel and realistic about what we are all doing to help Erica, Aaron and their 2 ½-year-old daughter Isabelle walk through this. It’s okay to feel what we feel because to deny our feelings would be unhealthy. It’s okay to wonder where God is in all of this, and to question our faith. I’ve also stopped using insincere platitudes just because they sound good.
God is present in my writing, reading, teaching, listening, retreat work, prayer and spiritual direction. When I pray, I don’t ask God to do anything that God isn’t already doing. Petitionary prayers become prayers of gratitude for Erica, prayers of praise to a God who brings us life and prayers of contrition for all the times I have caused pain to friends and family. My faith says that God will do what God will do.
I find myself asking more these days: “How is God right here, right now?”
At this moment, God is right here, right now in me seeing Erica and her little family as a blessing, and this cancer giving us a chance to share what’s really important.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch.)