When you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, you'll probably experience a cascade of emotions. Usually the first is shock. Maybe you won't even believe the words you're hearing from your doctor. “What? Cancer? Really?” The next is often fear: “How will I cope?” “Will I die?” And then there’s anger: “It's not fair!” If you’re a religious person, you might ask, “God, how can You do this to me?”
You may feel one of these emotions more strongly than another. You may not feel them in this order. Or maybe you feel all of them simultaneously. In almost everyone, though, a cancer diagnosis raises a host of existential and spiritual questions. Some of these may resonate with you…
When they receive a cancer diagnosis, most people look inward and begin a process of self-exploration. You may look at all aspects of your life: physical, emotional, spiritual. Maybe you’ll say to yourself, I’ve always lived a healthy lifestyle; I watched what I ate, I didn't drink too much and I was careful to get enough exercise. I was a good person, I was a good spouse, I was a good child, I was a good parent. I regularly attended worship services. Why me? Am I being punished? Maybe you're not so proud of something that you've done, or even a few things that you've done, and you feel that the cancer might be punishment for those things.
As you reflect, remember that one of the most difficult things people struggle with is to not know why. So we look for reasons -- even if the reasons are wrong, even if they don’t make any sense. Making peace with your inability to understand what caused the cancer may seem impossible when you're newly diagnosed. But it's a worthy goal to strive for, in whatever way you can. Maybe you'll eventually conclude that we’ll never know why bad things happen; maybe it's more important to know how to respond when they do: to help others who experience crisis and to let others help us.
But… most people assume “Why me?” is a primary question for anyone diagnosed with cancer, but it’s not true for everyone. Maybe it’s not the assumption you operate from. Maybe you figure, “Some people get sick, others don’t. You play the hand you’re dealt.” If you’re one of these people, that’s fine. It’s not a question you have to wrestle with. Another common disconnect is between the spiritual conflicts people assume you should be having with a cancer diagnosis and how you really feel. People may tell you that you must be having a crisis of faith, or that you must surely be experiencing enlightenment. Again, neither of these things might be true for you.
One of the most difficult aspects of cancer is the uncertainty. You can’t control or anticipate anything, but it completely dominates your life. Uncertainty is very wearing. What will the next three days bring? Three months? Three years? A cancer diagnosis causes stress about one's future. It probably feels like everything is shifting around you. It's difficult to find a place where anything at all seems like solid ground.
Look around: Is there anything that can stabilize you, even for a moment? Remember that finding stability is a process. You might feel that you finally have a foothold on firm ground one day, but you’re sinking into quicksand the next day. It takes time to come to terms with and find a way to live with cancer. Something that seems stable and grounded and long-standing can be a respite in these trying circumstances, even if it only gets you to the next hour or the next day. Try to find a spiritual practice, however you understand spirituality, that gives you a feeling of groundedness. Then try to do it, even if it's just a few minutes every day. Look at the section of this site called Spiritual Exercises for some ideas.
You're right, it's supremely unfair. You're absolutely right to be angry. A cancer diagnosis is a time when many people, even those who are not religious, look for greater meaning to explain what's happening to them. Most religious traditions wrestle with worldly suffering. They offer many and varied responses to why people, even good people, suffer. Some traditions teach that suffering happens because we sin (even unconsciously) or because we are judged adequate to handle the suffering or because through our suffering we earn a place in the World-to-Come.
If you're not familiar with the biblical Book of Job, you might want to take a look at it. Job was a good man who suffered greatly because of a contest between God and Satan. The Scriptural Job gives us a paradigm to understand the often random and undeserved suffering we encounter. Ultimately, most religious traditions concede that the elucidation of suffering is beyond the grasp of human intellect. How can we explain the prosperity of the wicked or the afflictions of the righteous? In the biblical story, Job never learns what caused his suffering. But God appeared to Job, and God's presence brought comfort. Maybe you're not a believer. But maybe you can find comfort in the presence of others, with friends, community, people who care about you.
People who believe in God often struggle with their relationship to the Divine when they receive a cancer diagnosis. It's not unusual to rage at God. Where are You? How can You do this to me? To my spouse? To my children? The Book of Psalms speaks directly to these questions. The Psalms are filled with people who are angry with God. They threaten, exhort, and call out against God. They serve as excellent models for us today. They are exemplars of people who help us understand that just as God is there for us in good times, God can support us in our anger. Or perhaps your diagnosis leads you to a different understanding of God. Maybe you come to believe that God doesn't meddle in the daily lives of people. Maybe God is limited by the laws of nature and by human moral freedom. Maybe God is Creator, the spark of life, the force that helps us to endure our pain and our suffering.