Pain is a nuisance. We remedy it if we can. As a society, we ignore it and keep moving on with what we have at hand, largely bypassing those who are not producing at their maximum level of capacity. But what happens when we are confronted with suffering that we cannot sidestep or wait out? Is life over, or on hold? Or, may we dare to seek a purpose within that freeze frame?
I used to be a trained athlete with health taken as a given. I feel pretty healthy at the moment and currently do not look like someone struck with illness, but I have looked that way many times. Within the past six years, I have had six surgeries, cancer and respective treatment, and vertigo, which literally made my world spin. Suffering has been a constant companion.
Having thyroid cancer illumined my personal understanding of suffering. Until an illness like this has the audacity to barge into one's life, it appears from the outside that the surgery and treatment associated with such illnesses are momentary annoyances. It should be easy to stay positive. After all, the rates for cures are so high. However, it is staggering how much actually goes on before and after the well-known procedures for any cancer treatment in the form of tests, appointments, and special diets, not to mention the emotional, psychological, and physical tests of endurance. Let us rewind. I was in the beginning of the second trimester with my second child when my doctor found a large lump in my throat. They thought it could be an aggressive form of cancer, and I had to decide if I would have surgery within a couple of weeks. It was cancer, and I was on the path of treatment for the next year and a half.
Like most Americans, I would have preferred to deal with my health on the side, get on with life and put on a happy face, but it gradually took over my daily existence. After each setback, I tried to pick myself back up by my bootstraps like the sportswoman I was trained to be, and succeeded for the better part of a year. I had a strong faith and knew God was helping me to navigate the situation while being a mother of two. But then the moment came when I couldn't be strong anymore. In preparation for my nuclear radiation treatment, my doctors took me off of my thyroid hormones for over a month and I began experiencing hypothyroidism in about a week. I watched as time slowed and ultimately stood still. I tried to be strong in every way, but I could barely move, much less feel brave. Looking at the panorama of my life, my husband and children were suffering with me in different degrees, and I knew there was almost nothing I could do to soften their pain. Disappointment, frustration and tiredness reigned as I was transformed into someone I didn't recognize in any way.
And then, by God's grace, it dawned on me: I could not skip over this time in anticipation of a better time to come. I was going to be ill through my treatment and recovery, and I had to really live this experience because there was no escaping it. I could no longer feign strength and I had to let go and just live in the moment, stripped of all of the things that I thought made me who I was. And I experienced God's immense love for me.
Through suffering, we are given the chance to bask in God's love, like a newborn relishing his mother's embrace. Initially, when we are weak, it may feel like we are worth very little because we cannot produce something or be who we want to be. In a society obsessed with production and movement, discovering the secret of God's love for us regardless of our abilities is the pearl of weakness. I was never more free and self-assured than when I experienced my worth in God's eyes while utterly unable to show something for my day-to-day existence and I may never have felt this reassurance without this intense experience. I was also struck in a more profound way with the real love in each detail of Our Lord's Passion because physical, moral, and spiritual pain were now a palpable experience in my life. Jesus had faced his Cross with dignity and I had to learn how to accept and carry mine, frequently stumbling along the road. His sufferings were converted into graces and new life for me. I could reciprocate by offering my suffering back to him for others. This prayer of mine was capable of pulling down graces for all of the people in my life because as we know, all of our suffering can be a share in Christ's redeeming Passion.
Now that I am three years out from my cancer experience and in relative health, I wish I could say I readily embrace the different forms of suffering that come my way. Even so, I would never trade these experiences, because they have changed the fabric and viewpoint of my daily life. I hope in the future to more readily notice another's experience of pain and lend the heart and hand they need in a tangible way because I have desperately known that need. I also hope to be daily grateful for currently having the strength and capacity to team with my husband, guiding our children through life while thoroughly enjoying who God made them to be. There were times when I was forced to recognize that I had taken my life and faculties for granted. Although painful, suffering brings with it perspectives that cannot be artificially manufactured. God's Love for us shines through any pain we can experience, transforming true sorrow into unimagined and life-giving joy.