Hope in the Midst of Illness

CW: illness, cancer, death

In 2017 I was diagnosed with a glioblastoma - a type of malignant brain tumour. It has very low survival rates. On average people with this diagnosis survive for 12-18 months, with only 25% surviving for more than a year and only 5% more than five years.

There are several words that come to mind when reading these statistics, none of which are particularly appropriate for an SCM blog! We’ll stick with Captain Darling’s response in Blackadder Goes Forth; ‘I put a note in my diary today. It simply says…” bugger”’. My situation doesn't seem particularly hopeful – or at least, not in the way hope is usually packaged. Hope is often portrayed as holding out for a hero, or a last minute miracle reprieve – in Darling’s case, that at the last moment the offensive will be called off or that for once Baldrick’s cunning plan will actually work. In my scenario, that my consultant will tell me that my results were misinterpreted and I’m actually fine, or that they’ve found a miracle cure. As anyone who has a serious illness (or has seen a loved one going through similar) that is just not our reality. Life, as I am gradually learning, is not a film. But the hope that I try to face each day with isn’t that kind of naive hope.

This may all sound very bleak, and if my theology of illness were different this is probably where I’d say, ‘but it’s okay because God!’. Often this is the difference between well-meaning platitudes and the reality of our lived experiences – the ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ theology, a quote that seems to mean nothing to the person hearing it but makes the person saying it feel like they deserve a pat on the back. For me, I can’t do everything – I can’t walk and carry something at the same time! Sadly, my intensive course of radiotherapy did not even give me superpowers – another way in which comics and movies have lied to us! Radiotherapy didn’t turn me into Spiderman or the Hulk, it just made me tired and feel sick.

So, if my hope is not a naïve hope, what is it? My hope is immersive, much like my experience of God has been since 2017. It is something that surrounds me all the time and is ever-present. I imagine most people reading this are familiar with the poem Footprints. It was pointed out to me recently that the thing about that poem is that it is not until the end of the story that the author realises that God was there all along. That doesn’t make the journey easy; it doesn’t mean we don’t stumble and it doesn’t mean we don’t fall down – we just need to look at Job to know that. To quote Julian of Norwich, ‘He said not 'Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased'; but he said, 'Thou shalt not be overcome.’ For me, that journey is going to be shorter and very different than I expected, but it is not without hope. I hold the sure and certain hope of resurrection, the hope that comes with love and with faith. Like prayer is not a magic wand, hope is not a genie who can grant us three wishes and make us well. Healing is about being made whole and allowing and recognising that wholeness, not about being ‘fixed’. That hope doesn’t stop the road from being difficult, it doesn’t stop us from stumbling on the rocks on the way, but we are not alone. We are immersed in love and in hope and in joy, even at the very darkest and hardest moments.

 One of my favourite authors is Barbara Kingsolver, who once wrote ‘The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof’, and that concept is one which I’m trying to live to.

Written by Debbie White.