There’s a land called ‘Cancer’ that most of us hope never to visit. A random blood test, an intrusive internal examination, an awkward chat with a consultant, a rough drawing on a pad and suddenly you’re a fully paid up citizen of Cancerland.
You don’t really understand what the doctor is saying. It’s as if the air in the room has suddenly lightened and concentration is difficult. But the furrowed brow, the pencil squiggling indecipherably on the paper and words like ‘cancer’ and ‘malignant’ and ‘surgery’ hanging in the air, remind you that you’ve arrived at a place you hoped you would never have to visit.
You soon realise that you’re abroad a train that will take you to places with which you are unfamiliar, to waiting-rooms you never knew existed, and where you read magazines you never knew existed. A maze of appointments – peppered with words like ‘oncology’, ‘nodules’, ‘chemotherapy’, ‘scans’ – connect you with people you had never met and machines you hardly knew existed, dictating a process and a prognosis that are the result of a plethora of medical procedures. And you find yourself in a place you never wanted or, if the truth be told, you ever expected to be.
The writer, Richard Ford has his famous chronicler, Frank Bascombe, muse, ‘‘When you grow old not that much is happening, except on the medical front’. But even when you half imagine you’re not old, even when defusing thoughts of one’s own demise doesn’t require much diligence, even when the large sunny windows of the boyhood years are no more than a distant memory, you innocently expect that the tried and tested sequences of one’s own life will continue undisturbed as if death had not yet been invented. But suddenly I was there, a reluctant part of the world’s greatest medical constituency – cancer-sufferers – sitting in a waiting room, being told what needed to happen ‘surgery-wise’, and what the percentages offered in terms of a future life.
It was as if somehow a random, fortuitous, incidental toxicity had infected my life and the instinctive combativeness that had served me in so many of life’s struggles was in danger of vanishing from my arsenal. Was this all there is? Was this all there was going to be?
A strange, or maybe not so strange, state of bewilderment or helplessness ensued. A regression almost to a state of childhood dependency. An isolation and a loneliness that the usual distractions failed to assuage. Empty days and uncertain nights ushering in what I imagined was an extended Advent period of waiting in hope. It was as if in the process my confidence was slipping away, my present life was diminishing and my future life was at risk. ‘Where but to think,’ the poet John Keats wrote, ‘is to be full of sorrow’.
Inevitably and selfishly, the question, ‘Why me?’ asserted itself. I remembered the philosopher, John Moriarity, being interviewed on radio after his diagnosis of terminal cancer and being asked if he ever asked that question. He did, he said, but it was soon followed by another question, ‘Why not me?’ Moriarity’s point was that he had lived his life, and that those with unlived lives, notably those with young children had more reason to ask ‘Why me?’
For my own part, there came a point when I could do no more than to leave everything in God’s hands. I felt his presence with me but I found myself mulling over whether it was a trifle presumptuous to ask for a cure? Doesn’t God by definition know better, see the bigger picture? It seemed more acceptable to pray for the strength to bear whatever might enfold – even though I was happy to know that family, friends and parishioners were praying for my recovery.
Thus I found myself relying on the sustaining force of others, hoping that I could at some future point lay claim to being a cancer ‘survivor’, though the latent triumphalism of that term might be thought somehow to denigrate the dying and the dead. What didn’t help was the uncheering cheerfulness (which has delusion and false hope as its first cousins), that optimistic disposition that comes easier sitting beside a hospital bed than lying in it. I learned to sympathise with the writer Barbara Ehrenreich, a breast-cancer victim, who once wrote that she discovered to her cost that an assumed cheerfulness was mandatory and dissent from that prescribed attitude ‘a kind of treason’.
Guilt was another unexpected dimension to the cancer experience. It’s a curious thing. You’d imagine that recovery or survival or whatever synonym is appropriate for getting over a difficult health issue should be trumpeted, not least for the confidence it might give others, but there’s a residual guilt attached.
In an adjacent ward in the hospital where I had my surgery, Fr Paddy Hegarty, a colleague whom I had known and respected for most of my life, was dying. I felt confident that Paddy, who was marked with saintliness, wouldn’t have asked, ‘Why me?’. His whole demeanour would have resisted that selfish reaction, though he wouldn’t have advertised his selflessness too publicly.
Paddy, and Seamus Heverin, another colleague, who would die some days later in the same hospital, were a few years older than me, and could well have considered that whatever dice God threw to decide who lived and died, that the small number of years between us didn’t warrant it falling so clearly in my favour. Or maybe God decided they were ready and I wasn’t.
That guilt was revisited when another younger colleague, Martin Barrett, died in the same hospital a few months later, but it was nothing to the unease I felt later when visiting a young man, married and with a young family, who was dying of cancer. The question was not so much why fate had decided that I would get cancer but why God decided I should recover and someone who had so much more of a right to life than I had, and was needed so much more, was going to die.
Over a year on, I’ve lived to another Christmas and I thank God for it. You never miss the water until the well runs dry may be a cliche to end all cliches but it’s true. But there’s nothing like a serious illness when the future hangs in the balance to give you a sense of the precious breadth and delicious texture of the ordinary bits and pieces of life.
Leaving the hospital in a wheel-chair is a memory that will forever heighten the sheer joy of walking. Feeling the wind on my face, watching a golden sun sink into a golden sea, enjoying a good meal, even putting words one after another in reasonable sequence, are experiences no longer to be taken for granted but, for all that, unambiguously cherished.
Difficult, impossible really, to make sense of it all. Life is so very, very precious. Life can be so very, very fragile. I realise that now, having made it – so far, so good – out of that dark tunnel.
A happy new year to all my readers.

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  1. Cathy McCarthy says:

    My lovely friend Tony Flannery made me aware of your article on cancer. As I have also walked down that dark tunnel, I can relate to everything in your article. It is a word you never wish to hear, it is a place you never wish to visit. But like you I am grateful for every day now, 7 years on and thank God for my health. Just today while walking on Dun Laoghaire pier, I marvelled at the magnificent blue sky, the simplicity of life and the simple moments that are now extraordinary. As Patrick Kavanagh said, “we get glimpses through the gaps in the hedge”, glimpses of those ordinary moments which now have a whole new meaning. I wish you all the best, health, light and peace for 2015. Surrounding you with light, Cathy

  2. Brendan, I wish you all the very best in 2015. Thank you for all your excellent, thought-provoking articles in 2014 and I look forward to more of the same in 2015.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan, many thanks for writing this. I hope you’ll go on sharing your vision of faith with all of us. I was privileged to know at least four unforgettable Christians who were launched to new heights of life and love after a cancer diagnosis (Padraic Conway, Sean Freyne, Sr Ruth Sheehy, Gillian Nicholls).

  4. Clare byrne says:

    Brendan, thank you for such a clear description of ‘ Cancerland ‘ I can relate to every word you wrote. I am living with Secondary Cancer, and with treatment so far so good. I find each day is a new gift to be cherished, and to take time to “Smell the Roses’ of God’s beautiful Creation all around us us.
    I live to read your articles on acp web, and also other contributors. Keep up the good work, and I wish you Light . Love, Joy and good health for 2015.
    Blessings. Clare

  5. Ann Walsh says:

    Thank you Brendan for your openness and honesty in this piece.
    I feel privileged to have been able to see into your experience so that I can perhaps be a little wiser in my own.
    I was really moved by your words on not ‘asking God for a cure’ yourself.
    I can’t claim to have done the same when my husband was ill.
    To my shame, I threatened God if he let me down on this one he’d never see me again.!
    Your faith and trust in God in such darkness gives me a glimpse of what real faith is.
    For this again I say thank you.
    Today it may be frosty outside but your words have helped me appreciate the beauty this day offers me now.
    Continued good wishes for health and continue the writing.
    Your words inspire, more than you’ll ever know.
    Ann Walsh

  6. JohnSetright says:

    Thanks for your article on Cancerland” which was very sensitive and realistic.
    I first encountered the “Why Me?” question when I was a heartbeat away from death some years ago.
    A wonderful, quietly spoken priest gave me a book by Viktor Frankl – Mans Search for Meaning- where he wrote about the Why Me/Why Not Me question ,during his time in Auschwitz.
    His thoughts helped me try to rationalise and accept my own situation. It prompted me to ask myself the question: Did I want someone else to have my illness instead of me?. No!
    I wish you peace and good health for 2015 and also to all contributors to this site

  7. Brendan Hoban SSC says:

    Just to wish you every blessing for the New Year with peace and happiness up front. Thanking you for all your work, wisdom and care with all your own struggle. I liked this article along with so many more as it is a great call to awareness and offers the challenge to real life and living to the full. May you continue in your prophetic role in a world and at a time that we need it so much. Brendan HobanSSC

  8. Hi Brendan,
    I loved your “cancerland” article and fully resonated with all of its sentiments, as a “paid-up member” of that fraternity (prostate) since July 2008. Early diagnosis was a great blessing. Since recovering from the surgery, every day since has had that added bit of appreciation for the wonder of being alive. It’s great to have the cancer survivor’s reflections so very well expressed, and thanks for putting them on paper for us in your very engaging way. Best wishes to you and all our ACP readers, for the soon-arriving year of 2015.
    Pat Rogers

  9. Brendan Cafferty says:

    Very well written superb article by Fr.Brendan on his journey with cancer and for sharing it with all of us.Those of us in the locality got to know about it just over a year ago and we were all so concerned and wishing him a speedy recovery. He continued to write for the Western People over all that time which we looked forward to (possibly real reason I read WP) on a weekly basis,and even if he had,for a short time to scale down his involvement with the ACP. But so glad that he has for almost a year now resumed his priestly duties in Moygownagh and his involvement with the ACP. Also of course in last few weeks his church, St Cormac’s has been reopened after a major reconstruction job. So much done and so much more to do.

  10. Thank you Brendan for such a realistic yet hope filled account of coping with cancer. I wish you every blessing and good health for 2015.
    I so appreciate your articles on the ACP website and would like to thank you and the other ACP contributors whose articles keep us close to the true meaning of the Gospels and what it means to be a true follower of Christ.
    Beannacht Dé oraibh agus ar an obair.

  11. Martin Harran says:

    “You are a gem and a wordsmith to boot” just about sums it up.
    All the best for 2015, Brenadan

  12. Seamus Ahearne osa says:

    Brendan gave us a visa to visit Cancerland. It is remarkable story and admirable. He expresses himself well as always. It is inspirational.
    Our community here is awash with refugees from Cancerland. They intrude on our peacefulness every day! Breast cancer is rampant at present. The whole paraphernalia of treatment is spoken of daily: Hair, wigs, clots, prayerful pleas ‘that I will be given the chemo today.’… I just don’t know how people cope? Brendan gave us a glimpse into life on Cancerland. Some of us can still carry on as tourists/visitors to the Island, until the panoply of consequences assaults our reality.
    Catherine Pepinster took a mini-sabbatical (as Editor of the Tablet) and was diagnosed with breast cancer. She also wrote movingly of the experience (two weeks back). I smiled at her taking refuge in the rosary during sleepless nights. And yet how understandable?
    A friend in Glasgow who has MND is another inspiration to me. He sent me an e-mail on Christmas eve: ‘Just back from the Vigil Mass which was beautiful.’ He wrote that e-mail with his ‘eyes.’ He is wonderful. The family are wonderful. Their faith is astonishing. His mother Eileen replied to this question from me: “How is his mother?” She said: “I don’t know. All I know is this: Gavin brings out the best in all of us. He now speaks electronically but I am lost for words. This is all too big for me and for us. I suppose anything that matters in life is too big for us. This place has to be ‘a sacred space.’’ That may be the only possible comment. I am lost for words with Gavin (website: Gavinliveslife. ) I am lost for words with Brendan. I am lost for words as I read Simon Fitzmaurice’s book – ‘It’s not yet dark.’ (Another MND sufferer).
    And yet for the past week or so, I have been one-legged. A stick replaced the leg. Everything took so much longer. I resented the immobility and how it has affected what needs to be done. Weddings on Friday and Saturday – a stick is a distraction. How stupid and how minor and how irrelevant and only an irritant. And Brendan & Co on Cancerland gives me and us – a perspective.
    Brendan is a gentleman. He lifts all our spirits all the time. I wonder will he become more awkward, more troublesome, more assertive as time goes on? Any citizen of Cancerland has earned the right!
    Seamus Ahearne osa.

  13. Thank you Brendan.People in many different lands will bless you for what you wrote;people in any pain land, fear land, mental health land,suffering land, relationship land,
    Thank you for all the work you do on behalf of so many of us. Bless you and may 2015 be kind and gentle to you

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