Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Breast Cancer: Vulnerability

I'm experiencing what is, for me, an odd consequence of cancer:  a deep sense of vulnerability.

I doubt that it's an odd consequence of cancer itself ~ but for me, it's highly unusual to feel this exposed to danger.  I think that my mother's death and the resultant series of stepmothers taught me one overarching lesson, beginning with a seven-year-old version: You'd better learn to take care of yourself.

I've come to recognize this new reality, this new sense of fearfulness, over the past couple of weeks, as I've become increasingly reluctant to travel to my new congregation for overnights in the manse next door to the church.  Neither the the distance nor the time away from home seemed daunting back in early September as I prepared to accept the call.  The situation wasn't ideal, but at an hour-and-one-half's drive, it was an hour closer than seminary had been for three years.  After my surgery, however, that trip might as well have been to the west coast 2,500 miles away.  Even now that I can do it on my own, the drive is too tiring for a round trip in one day, and the overnights are lonely.

I looked the word up, of course.  www.dictionary.com tells me that vulnerable means "capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt . . . open to assault; difficult to defend."

Well, my body has been wounded and hurt, my experience of medical care is always one of assault, and it is difficult to defend oneself against a series of procedures when one's body's response each week is completely unpredictable.

Still, this is a new feeling for me.   I am generally an adaptable person; in fact, one of my faults is that I am too much so ~ too willing to accommodate, to make room, to abandon my own positions ~ sometimes at the potential expense of my own integrity.  But on the whole, I am adaptable in positive ways: able to move forward in the most impossible of situations; able to tunnel under, around, or through setbacks; resistant to surrender. 

But this, this experience of cancer has been different.  I was unable to make decisions about my treatment with confidence.  I have been in some degree of physical discomfort or, more frequently, genuine pain for three months running (one week off back in early November).  I often feel that I am not at all up to the task at hand where my family and work are concerned.  My energy is repeatedly sapped; I work up to a mile's walk over the course of a few days and then, without warning, I can't leave the house for the next one.

This is nothing at all like the devastation I felt after Josh died.  Then, and for months afterward,  I felt as if I weren't even alive, unless you consider the sense of wandering in an endless and empty universe and having been utterly abandoned by God as a form of life.

These days, I am plenty alive.  But I am, as it turns out, unable to protect myself from even small, hidden harms.

This feeling of vulnerability is not one that I recommend.  I'm not at all confident about how to navigate this one.  

I hoping that I will be surprised ~ in good ways ~ by the journey.

Image: Wernersville Jesuit Center (July 2011)


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  2. I have so much to say in response to this that I don't know where to begin. Many of your recent posts have given me this feeling - the depth of what you are writing makes me feel that it's too important to just jot down a reply. I wish we could meet for coffee and really get into it.

    I will say that vulnerability is one of the things that living with Katie's cancer taught me, too. I also felt vulnerable as a child, due to various events and betrayals, and have felt that way as an adult, from time to time. But Katie's diagnosis and treatment, as well as the outcome, definitely taught me, in a new way, that we ARE vulnerable. That lesson has helped me to live differently, in more dependence on God, and in less expectation that things will go the way I want them to go. I have come to feel that what actually happens here is less important than HOW we do what we do along the way; that Love is the destination, and it is also the Way. I pray that you will feel God's comforting presence with you, holding you, as you acknowledge your vulnerability.

  3. Holding you close and hoping that you know that you can express this vulnerability with me and that I'll try to help you through it as best I can. Wish this wasn't your scenario right now.

  4. Robin, I haven't walked the same path as you; however, my journey has led me into a feeling of vulnerability also. When we are in that place, it is an opportunity for others to minister to us rather than having us always be the helper. This requires tremendous humility as we learn to rely on others. I pray that from your place of vulnerability you will be able to see God working through you. Blessings and peace.

  5. When I was younger I believed that if I just got stronger, knew more, and was better prepared (defended) then I would not be vulnerable.

    As I have gotten older, and as life has unfolded as life does, I have come to believe that vulnerability is a human state of being, and that not only is there nothing I can do to avoid it ... there is no reason to do so. Sometimes I will hurt. Sometimes I will hurt so bad that I go numb or wonder if I can stand another minute.

    But there is no amount and no kind of defense that will actually protect me from those experiences. I am vulnerable.

    Being aware of that, accepting it and learning how to choose God as the Way Out is the only thing that has remotely "worked" for me. And that "choosing God" thing is more like an illumination inside of me. Somehow the less I struggle, and the less I defend myself, the more clearly illuminated God is.

    Although my child did not die - by suicide or by the drug addiction that looked like a long, slow suicide - I know that one of the deepest, more crystal clear moments of God-presence for me was when I truly accepted the reality that I am so vulnerable to the pain of her death, and that there was nothing I can do to prevent it. Nothing.

    It is not your pain. It is not your journey. But I share mine with you. There is something ineffable about trying to come to terms with vulnerability.