DEAR DR. POPCAK: you probably receive thousands of letters like this one, and I would never have thought that one day I would also be writing to you. I have always enjoyed excellent health, and the only times when I was in hospital was when I was visiting friends or relatives, but now… now I have that dreaded disease: cancer.
I still can’t believe that now I will have to muster up all my patience – I have never had any – and face the reality of pain and subject myself to a long, humiliating and treatment which may not even work in the end.
I don’t even know why I’m writing to you, or whether pain and suffering have any meaning.
Early in my career I worked for an agency that provided counseling both to patients with severe, chronic and even terminal illnesses, and their families. In my many hundreds of hours of conversations with all of these individuals I learned three things that I pray will be helpful to you.
a) Remain faithful: In his book, Faith and Health, Dr. Thomas Plante cites hundreds of studies showing that patients who are prayerful experience greater benefits from treatment, feel more hopeful throughout their treatment, tend to experience comparatively less pain, and tend to recover more readily than people who do not pray.
When we are suffering, we are often tempted to pout and withdraw into our anger and resentment. We push God away. I urge you to fight this temptation with all your might. Go to God constantly. Don’t be afraid to wear out your welcome. Be completely honest with him about your pain, your anger, and your fears. Just like your physicians can only help you if you tell them where, and how, it hurts, the Divine Physician can best attend to your concerns when you tell him what you are truly concerned about. In addition to prayer, be sure to keep up whatever spiritual practices you can. Attend Mass, participate in the sacraments fully (especially Anointing of the Sick), and remember to lean on whatever other spiritual resources have been a source of strength in the past. Make God your constant companion on this journey.
b) Keep people close: Besides keeping God at arms-length, we often push others away when we are suffering, either because we imagine we are being a burden, or because everything others do and say tends to get on our nerves. Again, both research and my own observations show that those people who keep friends and family members as close as possible – even when those relationships are complicated – tend to do better mentally and physically than people who isolate. Keep up your social outlets as long as you possibly can, even if it is a bit of a challenge. Invite people to visit you. Let people know that they are welcome in your life. Sometimes people don’t know what to say or how to help, so be honest about your needs. Likewise, try to find little ways to be a gift to others, remembering to pray for them, or be a good listener, or even performing those acts of service that you are physically capable of. Doing these things helps you remember that you are not just a patient. You are a person who matters to God and to others.
c) Seek meaning: You asked if pain and suffering have meaning. To be honest, you have a choice in this. Every day, you will be faced with what Pope Francis refers to as “the temptation to survive.” That is, the temptation to just get through the day, focusing on everything that is wrong, everything that hurts, and everything that is hard. If you do this, every day will seem like a long, impossible slog that must be, at best, endured.
Alternatively, you can seek meaning. Ask God for the grace to respond to whatever the day brings in a manner that will let others see him working in your life, even when you are suffering. Don’t pretend to be better off than you are, but face everything with the attitude that says, “My first job is to show my doctors, nurses, family, and friends God’s love as I go through this. How can I do that right now?” In addition to cultivating this meaning-seeking mindset, find a spiritual director and a faithful counselor who can accompany you on your journey. Get good help to address the deeper questions that will surface as you reflect on your life and progress through treatment.
Yes, you are facing a challenging time in your life, but it can be a time filled with love, grace, meaning and hope, if you let God and others be a part of the process. You are in my prayers.