Cultivating Spirituality

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Libby Caes, MDiv, BCC


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While a cancer diagnosis can unexpectedly disrupt our lives, there is tremendous possibility for positive change that can follow. Libby Caes, MDiv, BCC, oncology chaplain at UW Hospital and UW Carbone Cancer Center, offers reflections for finding smooth sailing in what can be choppy waters.
Sail boatSeveral years ago my Mom treated me and my siblings to a Caribbean cruise.
At night I would often walk the promenade and look down into the deep dark waters. I had seen the movies, Titantic and Amistad, and images from them would be with me as I watched the sea flow by.
I was thankful for the railing that kept me safe. I was thankful for the lifeboat drill we had before leaving port.
I was thankful for calm weather. I was thankful it wasn't hurricane season and there were no icebergs!
It was a safe and mostly uneventful trip. And, yes, it was fun!
Finding Ourselves in Stormy Waters

We take our calm lives and smooth sailing for granted. And, then a cancer diagnosis robs us of our complacency and we suddenly find ourselves in stormy waters. It is as if our boats have struck something and they are no longer safe. There is a leak somewhere in the hull.
Suddenly we are vulnerable and scared; the waters threaten to overwhelm us. We wonder what lies ahead; will there be chemo, radiation or surgery? We wonder how treatment will affect us. We wonder how long we will live. We wonder if we will ever return to the normal life we once took for granted.
Life has changed, irrevocably; not only for the patient but also for family and loved ones. Our boats may sink when a loved one dies. In the presence of death, the silence can be overwhelming, we feel like we are drowning in the waves.

But out of imbalance comes the possibility of new life and transformation.
Living a New Life
We establish new priorities, we live knowing that we are not immortal. We realize that we can only live in the present, not in the past or the future. We seek healing in relationships. We begin living our dreams.
This can be very hard work, making new choices and saying no to old ways of living, but well worth it. We discover that what was perhaps originally perceived as a death sentence - the cancer diagnosis - has become a gift.
We are living a new life.
This poem by Juan Ramon Jimenez captures the experience:

I have a feeling that my boat
has struck, down there in the depths,
against a great thing.
And nothing
happens! Nothing….Silence….Waves….

---Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and are we standing now, quietly, in a new life?

Translated by Robert Bly
{Risking Everything} 110 Poems of Love and Revelation. Edited by Roger Housden, p.35.
Finding Clarity in Illness
Living with cancer invites us to ponder the meaning of our lives, acknowledge what truly matters and set new goals.
Recently, Colleen Kremske died after a long struggle with breast cancer and AML. In her obituary that she wrote before she died, she states, "Whosoever I am now has been brought to fruition through the clarity of my illness."

One of the many ways to make sense of one's cancer experience, whether one is a patient, family member or caregiver, is to read and reflect on the poetry or writings of others. I am always looking for poems or quotes that provide a window of insight. When I find them, I save them, ponder them and write about them in my journal.

That Caribbean cruise was several years before my cancer diagnosis. I wonder how I would experience those walks around the promenade if I took another cruise. I am sure it would be different because I am a changed person. I am living a new life.

Consider for Yourself

When have you felt shipwrecked and overwhelmed?
What resources do you have? What are your beliefs? What gives you strength?
What do you need to say "yes" to? What do you need to say "no" to?
What new life is emerging?
What can you celebrate? 

A few resources that Caes uses include:, "Word for the Day"

The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, Jack Kornfield (Bantam Books, 2008)

Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, Rachel Naomi Remen (Riverhead Books, 1996)

{Risking Everything} 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, edited by Roger Housden (Harmony Books, 2003)