A few months ago, I found myself driving behind a white van with a decal that read, “Chemotherapeutic waste and medical disposal.” As the vehicle sped ahead, I thought of how easy it seems to carry away the byproducts of such a grim treatment. Indeed, while the chemo-waste can be shipped off and the malignant cells (mostly) eradicated, the invisible aftermath of a cancer diagnosis is not so easily removed. Through my interactions and interviews with YACC members, I have learned of the ways in which this diagnosis can elicit heightened awareness of the internal workings of the body, as well as deepened realizations about life’s temporalities. A cancer experience generates a multitude of uncertainties and has no regard for the planned trajectory of an individual’s life. In the face of such uncertainty and when confronted with an acute awareness of mortality, an individual’s personal beliefs may be affirmed or disrupted. There is often discomfort surrounding conversations of religion/faith/spirituality (call it what you will), but it is worthwhile to consider the role of such personal devotion in conversation with a cancer diagnosis.
Cancer has a way of restructuring the narrative of an individual’s life. For many, religious devotion or faith in a higher power provides comfort, allowing an individual to find meaning in their cancer experience. There is comfort in placing the cancer experience within the context of a larger and more ordered narrative. In this way, the religious narrative and the illness narrative become integrated in order to overcome the trauma associated with a cancer experience.
With the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia this weekend, we will observe the impact and magnitude of religious community. These individuals are brought together by common beliefs and faith. And they are bound together by love, hope and prayer. Many of us have had experiences in which someone offers to keep us in their prayers and thoughts. For someone with this shared religious devotion, prayer provides an invisible network of support which provides comfort and strengthens the bonds of community. Some put their faith in prayer and the intervention of a higher power, and some put their faith in modern medicine. Others are somewhere in between. But this weekend, as we observe the multitudes of people who will make religious pilgrimages to see the Pope out of faith that they might find healing, let us remember and respect the importance of religion in the lives of those who are afflicted.