Cancer during the Pandemic
In December 2019, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma and began chemotherapy at the beginning of February 2020. Because the treatment would reduce my immune system to near zero, I was advised to isolate myself from any possible source of infection. That meant keeping a distance from people, no hugs and no going to public places where there would be crowds. The consultant was very firm in stating that I had to shield myself as the consequences of not doing so could be fatal.
A few weeks later the Coronavirus, Covid-19, arrived. For me, then, it was what we in Scotland call a ‘lucky white heather moment,’ a wry, ironic comment meaning that just when you thought things could not get worse, they do: a sort of tartan version of Murphy’s Law.
The scramble for toilet rolls ensued. The strange reality of the lockdown became a novel relief from the pressures of work. We discovered Zoom, bought elderly relatives iPads, started doing things around the house we had been meaning to do for years, enjoyed the unusual good weather and grew in our admiration of the NHS staff and Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister.
And then the grim numbers of people dying increased inexorably day by day. People we knew began to die. Families and loved ones faced the awful prospect of not being able to say proper goodbyes, attend proper funerals and properly grieve. The daily reports conspired to make us feel even more isolated and vulnerable.
Each person has their own story of how they have lived through the pandemic. Each one is different. Each has something to contribute to our understanding of a shared experience of isolation. People have asked me how I am living through it. This is part of my experience, a year on from my first chemotherapy session.
In February, I lived like a happy hermit while everyone was still going about their busy lives. There were welcome daily phone calls from relatives and friends, but the centre of my day was celebrating Mass at my dining room table. The alone-ness seemed to enhance the intimacy with Christ in the Eucharist. There was a great comfort of just He and I together in the mystery. A quiet, holy solitude.
As my cancer treatment continued and my hair fell out—and I looked in the mirror and saw my father—the creeping menace of the pandemic seemed to be almost trying to seep under my door. Family, friends and parishioners were very practical in their caring, but there was an uneasy feeling of guilt as I doused the food and shopping that they delivered with Dettol, almost as if my actions were an accusation that their love contained a threat to my life.
Fear and focus
There are perhaps few things in life that are more destructive than fear. It paralyses. The walls close in. Everything and every moment seem to contain a powerful threat which forces us to withdraw into ourselves. The exhaustion and other side-effects of the chemotherapy did not help.
Getting a proper perspective of things is always important, whether we are dealing with a situation, an argument and especially ourselves. Fear often empowers the source of the fear—like a self-generating dynamo—but a proper perspective helps to reduce or even take away that power.
What I realised, when I mentally stepped back and looked at my life, was that actually I was very safe, I was cared for and loved by others and I could be with God all the time, a God who loves me immensely. It was a case then of taking control of the things I was able to and turning that control into a meaningful existence. Rather than being something destructive, my physical isolation could become an asset and a path to something deeper in my life thanks also to modern technology and my back garden.
Before the pandemic, there were frequent complaints that technology was driving people apart; people were spending too much time on their phones or their computers, escaping real life in favour of the fascination of cyberspace.
In a marvellous way, the pandemic has resulted in another aspect of the digital age, one which has shown itself to be positive and the opposite of those complaints. As well as enabling us to have face to face conversations using Zoom, FaceTime and Skype, there has been, what I can only describe as a sanctification of the internet. Where going online had been largely an almost individualistic experience, now people met together, albeit inhabiting little boxes—the greater the number the smaller the box—able to share their lives and their faith. In fact, early on in the first UK lockdown, Zoom crashed one Sunday morning because all the Christians were trying to have their services. Catholics were ‘going’ to Mass every day in various parts of the world. In the face of such hot competition online clergy were having to ‘up their game.’
Jesus’ statement that ‘where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ (Matthew 18:20) now had another connotation. He can be there between us, in the midst of the digital ones and zeros, in the Cloud, on our screens, in our waving to one another across the ether, in a shared experience of isolation. The Church seemed to no longer be just a building, which is what we all knew, but the pandemic seemed to reinforce that truth.
During the pandemic the Church also seemed less ‘institutional,’ more a gathering, an assembly of waifs and strays who found one another unexpectedly at times. In a way the pandemic has brought us back to the fundamental idea that the Church begins with the ‘domestic Church,’ people gathered in their homes—family and friends. Our relationship with God as Church starts with our relationship with those closest to us. I decided, therefore, that each day I would say Mass online with someone somewhere—family and friends, people in different parts of Scotland, England, Sweden, Australia, Up State New York, Fiji.
The power of God’s love
If Covid-19 has taught us anything it is that all of us on this little blue dot drifting in the vastness of space are small and fragile. Our lives are brief and precious, our hopes and aspirations a cry against the darkness that could overwhelm us so easily. But it was in the moments when I felt most vulnerable that I felt most loved, most valued by a creator who was not distant or uncaring of me in my smallness. There have even been times when I have felt that it did not matter if I live or die, I am loved and cherished by God no matter what. Love is stronger than death. Suffering can be either a grave or a springboard. It can teach us compassion and an awareness that at this level I am connected with every human being in the world.
The pandemic began in Lent and here we are again a year later celebrating Lent. The pandemic has in many ways been a prolonged Lent because we have found ourselves with the opportunity to be less distracted and able to be alone and intimate with God, unable to enjoy our normal pursuits and pleasures, and aware that there are many people throughout the earth who do not have what I have: access to good medical care, a Covid-19 vaccine, economic security, technology to keep in contact with others; and that knowledge demands that I help them practically as well as spiritually. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the core disciplines of the Lenten season.
Lent ultimately leads us to Calvary, to the foot of the Cross, to hear Jesus cry out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. During my illness in the midst of the pandemic I came to recognise that suffering is not a ‘thing,’ an arbitrary, absurd happening. It is a person—Jesus Forsaken. Why did I get cancer? Why has the pandemic happened? Why so much suffering? All these questions, all these sufferings are contained in Jesus’ cry of ‘Why?’ He took our sufferings and our darkness upon Himself. He became those sufferings so that we would not be alone, so that we would not remain in darkness. This was why God chose to become one of us. There is no moment in our life when God loves us and is close to us than when we suffer.
And the Resurrection? That closeness of Jesus to us, supporting us, comforting us, can open our heart to see beyond the wounds, to see that I, in my smallness, I am part of something bigger than myself, part of the journey of love I make with everyone.