A few of weeks ago, my husband and I were late getting to church. We’re supposed to be there by 10:40 to warm up with the choir, but that day, we came in on two wheels and slid in like baseball players reaching home plate. We only had time to grab our folders and robes and get in line. As we sat down in the chancel, I noticed many grim faces in the choir, and I asked my neighbor what was wrong. She asked me if I had heard about one of our bass singers.
“He was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer, and it’s already in his bones. There’s nothing the doctors can do for him except some hormone treatments.”
“What?!” My heart and my stomach dropped further than my jaw.
I love singing in the choir, and though small, our choir is something special. It’s more than the fact that we’re pretty good. Our choir is like a family who sings together and has a good visit a couple of times a week. I love our pianist, an amazingly talented woman whose golden hands and white-hot love for God is evident in every note she plays. I love my church for many reasons, but I especially love that the pastor and music minister choose anthems and hymns to thematically illuminate the sermon.
This day, the first hymn was “I’ll Fly Away” and the chorus’s last lines are, “When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” This song has a special place in my heart, and I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know it. My husband and our son love it because they attended Jacksonville State University and performed with the Marching Southerners who, at the end of every game/performance, sing this hymn while all the alumni in the stands sing along. It’s magical and moving like few things I’ve experienced, often moving me to tears. Also, it was my mother’s favorite song, and we sang it at her funeral. And right now, the song is a bittersweet reminder that though my days on Earth are limited, my days in Heaven will begin in the by and by.
But that Sunday, the Sunday I heard that my friend has metastatic cancer, it was the wrong song. So, so wrong. Our pianist played the most beautiful version of the song, and since we weren’t singing, I was able to hold it together, but my throat grew as tight as if I had swallowed a stone and tears were threatening.
I looked out at the congregation and saw two other men who recently had been diagnosed with cancer and had surgery in the last month. Both men are devoted Christians, husbands, fathers, and friends. Both have strong ties to our choir, and they feel like family. Hadn’t our small church suffered enough? Hadn’t the choir? I wanted God to give me an accounting of why we had so many choir members suffering.
I needed Him to show me a balance sheet.
Twelve years ago, my sister, Susan, was fighting ovarian cancer, and I was her medical advocate, attending doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy treatments so she could focus on getting well. She had already survived cervical and breast cancer, but her ovarian cancer was more advanced, the surgical and chemical treatment more aggressive.
Back then, I was in college taking a poetry-writing class for an English degree, and the emotional impact of her illness came out in my writing. I wrote a poem entitled “Line Up” because Susan said that she didn’t mind having cancer if that meant that her daughter, sister, and granddaughters would be spared, as though her cancer statistically cancelled out the chance that we would get it. What greater love than this, that a sister would lay down her life for her girls?
I was thinking about her “accounting” system – to pay the way for the women she loved through her own illness, and I realized that I, too, thought that my cancer was payment enough to cover my family and the other members of our choir family. Sadly, two more choir members or their family have been diagnosed since that “I’ll Fly Away” Sunday, and that seems like a significantly high number of cancer diagnoses considering what a small group we are.
Statistically, more than 7000 women in Georgia will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and approximately 1400 will die from it. Breast cancer is the second highest cause of death in the US, and nationally, a woman dies from breast cancer every fourteen minutes. What about me? What are the statistics for a woman my age with my type of metastatic breast cancer? The mortality rate for my type of cancer diagnosed after metastasizing to my liver and lungs is less than 5% survival five years after diagnosis. I’ve lived fifteen months so far.
I wish my cancer could offset the chance that my husband and children might develop cancer, but cancer doesn’t work that way. I can’t offer up my cancer as a payment to keep them healthy. I would, though.
God hasn’t shown me a balance sheet yet, but He did remind me that He will go with me through the valley of the shadow of death. He goes before me so I’m not alone in the dark. And until I fly away, I’ll keep singing with my choir, even if I’m singing in the shadows. Hallelujah.
The poem I referenced is below. As I re-read it, I am struck by the irony that I developed breast cancer despite my sister’s “payment” and my yearly mammograms.
My breasts are suspects
searched monthly for
signs of their betrayal.
Hard evidence, a lump or bump
invisible to the naked eye.
Once, my breasts were dreams
budding in pre-pubescent slumber.
Dreams of full-formed cleavage,
a perpendicular line of power.
Later my breasts were the consolation prize,
pale as magnolias, tasting of peaches.
Now my breasts are mature,
but dangerous. I know
because my sister found
a pea-sized stranger in her own breast.
She offered up the lump
to Karma and the Universe
ruled by probability statistics,
that if one in four women
will get cancer in her lifetime,
her payment was large enough
to cover our family’s debt.
My breasts are no longer my own,
watched under the secure
guard of my gynecologist,
occasionally locked down
by mammogram and fear.
by Julie Land