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5 lessons cancer patients have taught me about faith

One of the first lessons I learned starting out as a young chaplain 23 years ago was to listen. My experienced supervisor assured me that the patients I encounter will be some of the wisest people with whom I’d ever have the privilege of conversing. He was right, and I’ve been listening ever since — listening and learning.

The patients I’ve met (most recently, cancer survivors) have taught me much about life in general and more about faith than I could ever garner from a book. I’d like to share some of the most poignant lessons I’ve learned so far.

Faith is not stagnant.

After a lengthy treatment of radiation and chemotherapy, a terminal colon cancer patient once said to me, “I still have faith, but what was good before my cancer diagnosis doesn’t seem to work now.”

This survivor, as she was struggling through spiritual distress, was also acknowledging that her life had changed dramatically, and so had her faith. Often, we speak of faith as if it’s dormant — something we can put in a tidy box and point to when we need it. Yet faith changes, faith is challenged, and faith grows, especially during the hard times. So, if you find your faith changing, take heart. A changing faith is a healthy faith.

Faith is not always easy.

Like with the colon cancer survivor I mentioned above, a growing and changing faith doesn’t always translate to a spiritually painless life. When life is nearly perfect, it’s easy to have faith, isn’t it? But when difficulty and pain arise, faith can be hard — and that is okay.

But in those times when life turns upside down, remember this: Faith is possible, faith is sometimes painful, and faith can be the one thing that pulls you through.

But in those times when life turns upside down, remember this: Faith is possible, faith is sometimes painful, and faith can be the one thing that pulls you through. Madeleine L’Engle boldly states, “Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys.”

Related: Why empathy matters in healthcare

Faith transcends belief.

Faith and belief go hand-in-hand. When in crisis, your beliefs can get jostled around, but your faith can be the steadying factor. Yes, faith can be challenged but I have found that faith also sustains us while all else is being questioned, including long-held beliefs.

Perhaps it can even be said that your faith is weakest when you feel strong on your own, and strongest when you feel weak.

As a former professor encouragingly said to me in my own crisis of faith, “Your faith is like the nose on your face. You may try to separate from it, but you’ll find it hard to rid yourself of.” That one statement got me through a difficult time. Difficult times will find us. Let your faith guide you during those times.

Faith is not the same as optimism.

Hope and gratitude are the foundation of faith. Hope can stare down any diagnosis. Hope allows for tears and laughter. Hope looks forward when all else tells us to give up. Optimism, on the other hand, is temporary, and is easily poked full of holes when life gets difficult. But faith, built on hope and gratitude, is enduring.

Recently, a cancer survivor said to me, “I hope God doesn’t see my faith as weak because I feel so down. I’m really struggling.” I assured her that God has no expectation that her faith results in keeping her happy all the time. I also assured her that especially during her time of struggle, mercy abounds — even when optimism goes missing.

Perhaps it can even be said that your faith is weakest when you feel strong on your own, and strongest when you feel weak.

Faith and fear can coexist.

Cancer survivors are some of the most resilient people. It’s common to hear a cancer survivor use language we normally reserve for battle — like the phrase “cancer warrior.” This battle language serves a purpose but it’s important to remember that some days, it can be hard to keep fighting. But if you are feeling weak, that is not a sign of lack of faith.

Faith may be like a mighty oak that never bends to the gale force winds, or it may be like a tiny seed that is being nurtured beneath, ready to burst open with hope and joy on another day.

Faith may be like a mighty oak that never bends to the gale force winds, or it may be like a tiny seed that is being nurtured beneath, ready to burst open with hope and joy on another day. I’ve seen people who claimed to have the strongest faith ponder their very worth. I’ve seen other people who thought they were faithless reach deep within and find something new and sustaining.

Related: How faith and prayer helped me battle stage 4 ovarian cancer

All of these experiences with patients of various beliefs and backgrounds have taught me that faith is not linear or something that is easily measured. I’m consistently surprised when faith seems to rise from nowhere and take hold. And because I can’t fully grasp it all, I think I’ll continue to listen.

Discover the power of spiritual care.

About the author

Alan Wright, M.Div.
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Alan Wright is a chaplain at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center on the Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas hospital campus.

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5 lessons cancer patients have taught me about faith