First Person

Jewish World Review July 30, 2002 / 21 Menachem-Av 5762

Finding holiness in cancer

By Marlene Adler Marks | One day, my oncologist was in a talkative mood. He was raised Roman Catholic, but after 30 years in the lung cancer world, he knows that religion doesn't always help his patients.

"How are you doing?" he asked. "I mean, this has to be a big test of faith." Now, after months of receiving a devastating diagnosis, my understanding of religion has been transformed.

I am still Jewish, of course, identified with a proud, ancient people who survived the tribal equivalent of cancer many times.

I still light candles on the Sabbath and study Torah, seeking wisdom.

But these days, in addition to the more decorative public rituals, I say the morning prayers, seeking stability in the middle of chaos.

Jewish ritual has a more personal meaning, now that, indeed, I am past the testing stage.

I remember the testing stage. In the first weeks after the bad news, I knew what I expected from G-d: to reverse the verdict. I rehearsed my case time and again, presenting proof not only of my innocence, but of my guiltlessness, my worthiness, to the high court. Clear me.

In time, the shock burned off as the treatments began. The other day, a friend with breast cancer told me that even now, after three rounds of chemo, she still expects the hospital to call her and say there's been a mistake.

There's been a misreading of the scans. They had the wrong woman. I no longer expect that phone call. Faith now is not about magic, though I still pray the tumors will disappear. Faith means the strength to accept life, and the chaos that is part of it, on real terms.

I look at the doctor's drawing of the cancer cell. It is round and ugly with receptor cells like antenna that endlessly get the message: Grow. Natural law says that every cell dies. Cancer is an aberrant, a cell that has no signal shouting: Die.

The big challenge for me is to accept the truth: that these aberrant cells are, in their way, holy, part of the "formlessness and void" with which the universe was created. I'm not sure if they are a manifestation of the "evil inclination," but I do know it's all a mixed bag. The "evil inclination," the sages say, is the source of curiosity, artistry as well as crime.

So to be real, faith must accept this inclination, too, as part of G-d's work. It's the instinct that is aiding the biochemists who are trying to help me. Is there a blessing for a cancer cell fixing to die?

Recently, I attended a Wellness Community lecture by Dr. Diane Prager, a UCLA lung specialist. Prager, sophisticated and hopeful, went through the routine: the architecture of the lungs, the biography of a disease, the prognosis and odds, including ever-increasing numbers of clinical trials. I'd heard it before, but not from the vantage point of faith. Maybe that's why I wept.

For there were 50 of us sitting in upholstered chairs, like guests on a cruise ship, younger and older than me, with family or friends or alone, return travelers or first-timers, watching the slide show featuring the flora and fauna of a journey into hell.

The pain and excruciating disappointment was, for the instant, too much to bear.

"Blessed are You, G-d," I prayed silently, quoting the morning prayer book, "who makes firm a person's steps."

It is at moments like this, living seems so full of pain that I know what it means to test faith.

I say the "Birchas Hashachar" if not immediately upon awakening, then whenever the anxiety is most intense. They remind us:

Anything can go wrong. We may not wake up at all. We may have lost consciousness, been visited by a flood, become blind, lost our financial stability, become enslaved by a coup, lost our self-esteem, or our blessed state of Israel. Blessed are You, for being with me.

Not all of us get cancer, but every one of us seeks solid ground.

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JWR contributor Marlene Adler Marks is a columnist and author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life ". Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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© 2002, Marlene Adler Marks