What Breast Cancer Taught Me About Faith, Miracles and Gratitude
I envy my parents' faith. Supplication, I've often thought, must be easier on the body than Tums and Ambien. And how contenting it must be to believe that someday everyone you love will be in one place and will stay there forever. Who wouldn't want that destiny? But for all its comforting appeal, I rarely go to church and have read only a few chapters of the Bible. Even when disaster struck four years ago, I did not fall to my knees and petition the God of my childhood.
In autumn 2004, both my father and I were diagnosed with late-stage cancer. I was 36, and the seven-centimeter tumor behind my nipple was technically my second cancer. (In my mid-20s, I'd had a melanoma as big as a pencil eraser removed from my calf, leaving a little divot and a long scar that remind me to use sunblock and stay in the shade at midday.) My dad was 74, and the scattered tumors around his bladder marked round three for him.
The day my doctor called with the diagnosis, I hung up the phone, looked over the heads of my kids, and mouthed to my husband, "It's cancer." Then, after a long hug, a cold Corona, and a cigarette (I had squirreled away a half-smoked pack after a party the year before and for reasons I can't explain, I couldn't wait to suck down a Merit Ultra Light that afternoon), we went to the computer and started searching for information on "invasive ductal carcinoma." My father got his diagnosis in person; after thanking the doctor and scheduling a slew of tests, he and my mother slid into the Buick and drove down to St. Colman's, their favorite little church, for noon Mass. They gave it to God; we gave it to Google.
Over the course of a year, my dad and I both got better, and, especially in his case, people said it was miraculous. At the very least, it was unexpected. Perhaps even unexplainable, though not to Mom, who summed it up in one word: prayer. "People around the world were praying for your father," she explained ("around the world" referring primarily to a high school friend of mine who lived in Moscow and had always been fond of my dad).
I had both always prayed and never prayed, which is to say that I often found myself in bed at the end of a day saying to no one in particular, "Thank you for this good man beside me and those girls in the other room." But I had not beseeched God to make me well, had not begged God for my father's life. Among other things, I didn't want to be—to borrow from sixth-grade parlance—a user, a phony who thought she could get what she wanted by conveniently nuzzling up to someone she usually snubbed.
After my dad recovered, I talked to an old friend about my parents' confidence in prayer and their belief that God had intervened. Rather than praise the inexplicable glory of God, my friend thought we should exalt the devotion and ingenuity of man. Or, as she put it: "It just bugs me how people want to give all the credit away, as if we were all just useless sinners who didn't know how to take care of ourselves or each other." In other words, maybe it wasn't prayer that made my dad better—maybe it was all that chemo. Or the scope with tiny scissors that removed nine moldy tumors from his bladder without his even having to check in to the OR. Or the meticulous doctor who managed his case with such vigilance.
I liked my friend's take on things: Up with people and their hard work and cool inventions. But I kept thinking back to my father's initial prognosis. The urologist to whom I attributed my dad's stunning recovery had told us to brace for the worst. Ten months later, when he declared my father a healthy man, that same doctor said he couldn't explain "how on earth" my dad was disease-free. Could I really give all the credit to a doctor who shrugged his shoulders and said it was anybody's guess how George Corrigan survived?
The art of growing up is coming to terms with the disturbing fact that even the very smartest people don't always have the answers. Let us remember that it was only a generation or so ago when new mothers smoked cigarettes on the maternity ward while nurses fed the infants nice big bottles of formula. Only two years ago, children were still being taught to believe that poor Pluto was a planet. If history teaches us anything, it's that the truth is subject to change. This means that what is standard practice now may someday be eschewed, in the same way that no health-conscious person puts plastic in the microwave anymore. It also means that notions we now consider dubious may, somewhere down the road, become widely accepted. So might we eventually say, "Can you believe that people used to doubt the power of prayer?"
In fact, the federal government has underwritten elaborate studies asking this very question. Online, I've found a pile of research suggesting a measurable, therapeutic benefit to prayer and prayerful meditation. Sure, the link can be explained away; like any type of quiet meditation, prayer is relaxing, and relaxation has proven physiological benefits. But a click away from the reports was a survey of physicians—a clear majority of whom pray for their patients. So prayer isn't just for my gullible parents. And if doctors can get to belief, might I?
But maybe that's an incomplete picture. Maybe there's something between and around and inside all six billion of us, and maybe that something knows every hair on each of our heads. Maybe we are not anonymous. Wouldn't that be outrageous? And beautiful?
Faith is the tallest order, the toughest nut: the humbling of yourself before purposes you don't—and cannot ever—comprehend. Let's face it, believing that there is a God who might get involved in your tiny little life is beyond anti-intellectual. And this is why I doubt. But when I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that there's doubt within my doubt. And every time I remind myself of that, I think of Voltaire's confounding line: "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one." So I let my parents share their faith with our children. When we visit Philadelphia, where my parents live, I let them take our daughters to church. At night, my mom gets the girls on their knees and shows them how to cross themselves and position their hands and bow their heads. It is a lovely sight, and I would never discourage it. Of course, when we get back home to California, the girls are loaded with new ideas and questions they're counting on me to answer.
Claire, who is in preschool, recently asked what lights are made of. After I told her something about electricity and filaments and Thomas Edison, she said, "In church, they said Jesus is a light." Georgia, a first grader, reprimanded me for saying "Oh my God." "God is a bad word," she said. To which I heard myself say, "Oh no, honey. God is not a bad word. God is a very good word." Both girls have asked if they could be the Holy Ghost for Halloween.
Regardless of where I am on the spectrum from atheism to theism, I'd rather my girls be grounded in something, even something that seems too good or crazy to be true. This is why, when the girls ask me about God, I say that people believe all kinds of things and no one really knows, including me, but that I hope. Then I tell them what my husband, with tears in his eyes, recently told me: I say being with them is the most spiritual experience of my life—the highest high, the deepest yes, the most staggering gift—and that gift must have come from somewhere.
And what about all the little gifts, the everyday stuff like a good cantaloupe or a great public school teacher or the rebate check coming just in time? For that, I've taken to saying grace. At the dinner table we all hold hands while I talk about our friends, our family, our health. Then my husband, generally prompted by my raised eyebrow, says a prayer for the people we know who are having trouble. The girls mostly tolerate all this (sometimes adding a thank-you for a Popsicle or a playdate) and look forward to saying "amen," after which we take turns rising from our seats to do a family wave, as if the home team had just scored.
It feels good, saying grace. But for now, that's as far as I've gotten—just another person pulsing with thankfulness, wondering what will happen next. Someday—despite all medications and all prayers—people in our lives will get sick and will not get better. Georgia and Claire will ask me where they went, and I'll probably be wondering the same thing. Have they gone to a paradise, a separate plane of existence where God holds them in the palm of his hand? Are they internalized in the people who are left behind? Do they become part of the earth and therefore an endless part of the cycle of life?
If you asked my dad, he'd assure you that heaven exists and boy are you gonna love it. Just like if you asked him why I got better, he'd say something about how God wants me to be here. I tell him I got better because of four chemotherapies, each an impressive creation of man. But that just makes him laugh, shake his head, and flash his big knowing smile. "Aw, Lovey," he says, "don't you see? What do you think makes a man spend his days trying to cure cancer?"
From the May 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine