Cancer at Christmas
by Sarah Thebarge
On Christmas Eve of 2006, I boarded a plane in Connecticut and flew home to Chicago. My family picked me up and we drove to church for the Christmas Eve service.
I had always hoped I’d be like Mary – a young woman who loved God, whose life took an extraordinary turn. My life had taken an extraordinary turn, but in the wrong direction. Instead of beating the odds to become pregnant with the Messiah, I’d beaten million-to-one odds and gotten breast cancer in my 20’s. And God was nowhere to be found.
After the pageant, the ushers dimmed the lights and passed out small lit candles as we began to sing Christmas carols a cappella.
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strain
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
In excelsis Deo. I knew from my Sunday school days that the phrase was Latin for “God in the Highest.” It reminded me of another Latin phrase, in extremis. This was a phrase I had learned in my medical training that described a patient who was struggling to breathe as they died. In extremis is translated as, “in the farthest reaches” or “at the point of death.”
As I listened to people around me singing carols, I thought, “God, I don’t want you to be in the highest; I need you to be with me now in the lowest.”
That’s where I felt that Christmas: In the lowest depths. In the farthest reaches. At the point of death.
Hit with Depression
My mastectomy was in May, and since then I’d been in a deep depression. Instead of feeling better, I continued to feel worse - and December was the worst month yet.
My birthday was the second week of December, and my friends threw me a dinner party to celebrate. When they brought out the cake, I closed my eyes, leaned over the candles and made a wish. Actually, it was more like a prayer. “Please, God, please don’t let this year be any worse than last year was. I can’t take any more.”
For months now I felt like someone very close to me had died, and no matter how honestly and deeply I grieved, the sadness wouldn’t lift. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake the darkness. At the suggestion of my oncologist, I had joined an online breast cancer support group in hopes of finding a community to encourage me while I recovered from the physical and emotional scars. I chatted with women who had walked this road, and begged them to tell me what to do to get past this pain.
One woman told me that she had been depressed after her mastectomy, too. Her Kabbalah instructor told her to write an obituary to her breasts, and let them go. After we’d chatted for a while, she wrote, “Honey, go write that obit and have a good cry.”
But in that moment, I wasn’t sad; I was mad. Write an obituary? If I did that, the loss would be irrevocable. Say goodbye? I had spent the past few months telling God how unacceptable this loss was, how He needed to give me back my chest and my health and my life. I was definitely not okay. I spent hours a day sitting in my studio apartment, staring at the sky while tears ran down my face.
And so as I thought about my birthday wish, I told God I could probably survive as long as it didn’t get any worse.
Someone Who Understands
The only person I could talk to about the depression was my friend Lauren, who lived 90 minutes south in New York City.
Lauren was the adjunct professor of the first writing class I took in journalism school. She was a lifelong New Yorker who worked as an investigative reporter for a Long Island newspaper.
She was brash and I was soft-spoken. She had curly black hair, and I had blonde straight hair. She prided herself on powerful, succinct writing and I tried to turn each piece I wrote into a literary masterpiece.
When I called my journalism professor to tell him I’d been diagnosed with cancer, he told me, “You should talk to Lauren.”
I had never talked to Lauren about anything except writing assignments, and I had no reason to talk to her now - she seemed the person least likely to sympathize with my plight. “Why Lauren?” I asked.
“Lauren has cancer,” my professor said.
A few days later, Lauren called me and asked me to meet her before class. She told me the year before she’d been diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 37. “Cancer is one big mind#&*#,” she said succinctly. “When I got my diagnosis, all I wanted to know was, who did I tick off in heaven?”
She told me she’d been in remission for the past few months, and she was getting married the following spring, glad to be done with treatments so she could focus on reporting and the wedding.
“You’ll be fine,” she assured me. “I know a few women our age who kicked breast cancer’s butt.”
It was time for class, and we left her office and walked down the hall. I wanted to hug and cry and emote for a while, but she was matter-of-fact. The only emotion I could detect in her was anger - she was as angry at God as she imagined He was at her.
I spent the first week after my diagnosis trying to explain to everyone how I felt and what I needed them to do. I got tired of explaining, and soon I was talking to Lauren instead. She understood like no one else what it was like to have cancer and stare down the barrel of treatment and wonder if you had what it took to get through it.
“Whatever it takes,” Lauren told me over and over. “Just do whatever it takes to survive.”
She came to visit me in the hospital after my surgery, and called me every week that summer, just to make sure I was okay.
And then, three months before Christmas, her cancer came back. It had metastasized to her ribs and her liver and her brain. She had surgery, and then endless rounds of chemo and radiation.
Every week I took the train into New York City for journalism classes. And then I took the subway and lunch to Lauren’s 10th floor apartment where she and her little terrier Bart were waiting for me.
While we ate, we talked relationships and writing and cancer treatments and chemo side effects. One week, my professor asked if he could join us. Afterwards he told me, “I didn’t know what to say. It’s like you two were speaking your own language.”
“We speak cancer,” I said simply.
Not Looking Forward to Christmas
As Christmas grew closer that year, Lauren and I started talking even more. Her cancer wasn’t responding to treatments this time, and she was terrified of dying. My cancer was gone, but the scars on my chest ached continually. I was sleep deprived and depressed, and I spent most nights staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out what had happened to my love of Christmas.
I used to be the holiday’s biggest fan. When I was in grad school, I got the Christmas tree, tied it to the top of my car, dragged it through the front door and made my roommates help me decorate it. I made everyone get into the holiday spirit, whether they wanted to or not. I had heard that suicide hotlines got more calls at Christmas time, but I never understood why.
This was the first year in my life I didn’t want Christmas to come. The joy that the Nativity was supposed to bring was a stark contrast to the despair I was feeling now. I thought that if the message of Christmas was true – if Jesus really had come to earth to give us joy and peace – then I wouldn’t feel this low right now.
And I was feeling desperately low.
I dragged out the Christmas decorations and tried to force myself to get into the holiday spirit. I’d sit there listening to Christmas music, trying to muster the energy to decorate. And then I’d give up, turn out the lights, and cry myself to sleep.
The sadness made me feel guilty, and the guilt made me feel even sadder. Every day I spiraled lower.
I knew enough to know that when jumping from a building sounded like a good idea, it was time to get help. But I didn’t know where or how to get it.
One night I was flipping through channels when I found a Christian special on TV. I listened to testimonials of people who had been at the end of their rope and then found Jesus. I had grown up in the church, but Jesus seemed so far as to be non-existent at the moment. I was definitely at the end of my rope, and either I needed to find Jesus or He needed to find me. So I called the prayer hotline.
A man answered, asking what I wanted prayer for.
“I had cancer and the cancer’s gone but the sadness won’t go away,” I said, my voice breaking.
“Are you a Christian?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Let me get this straight,” he said coarsely. “You had cancer and now you’re cancer free, and you’re sad? What do you have to be sad about? Either you beat it and you’re cancer free, or you don’t beat it and you go to heaven forever.”
He asked again what it was I needed prayer for.
“Never mind,” I said, and as I hung up the phone I thought, “I’m really screwed. Even these Christian people can’t help me now.”
More Bad News
Later that night, Lauren called with more bad news. Her cancer had progressed, and her doctors told her she’d exhausted all of her treatment options.
“You’re the pastor’s kid; you tell me why this is happening. Isn’t God supposed to show us love and compassion?”
“Well, I used to think so but now I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I mean, I wouldn’t wish cancer on someone I hated, let alone someone I loved.”
She told me she was going to pull the covers over her head and binge on Cheetos. “Merry #&*#&*# Christmas,” she said as she hung up.
The next night, I went to a holiday party where two of my friends announced they were moving out of state, and another friend announced she was pregnant.
I tried to be sociable and engaging, but I couldn’t do it. “We have to go,” I told my boyfriend. We walked down the street to his apartment. He put water on for tea while I went to hang up my coat. A few minutes later he found me sitting in the closet, crying.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“My friends are leaving me,” I sobbed.
He pulled me close to him and rested his chin on the top of my head. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll be here.”
“And I can’t ever get pregnant and my boobs are gone,” I cried.
“I love you anyway,” he said.
I kept crying. Finally I was able to get the words out, “And Lauren’s dying,” I wailed.
He gave up and conceded, “And Lauren’s dying.”
Figuring Out Christmas
My birthday wish did not come true. Instead of my 28th year being easier, it was much, much harder.
My cancer returned, and Lauren died the night before I started chemo. I missed her funeral because I was vomiting on the bathroom floor and my hair was falling out in clumps.
During my chemo sessions, I listened to carols on my iPod and tried to figure out the mystery of Christmas. I thought about how the bright lights and happy music mocked my depression and Lauren’s terminal illness. How could Christmas and our pain coexist? Didn’t one negate the other?
Finally, it occurred to me that maybe our pain didn’t disprove the message of Christmas; maybe it validated the need for it. If the world wasn’t so dark, if we weren’t given to despair, if we weren’t terrified of death, why would we need a Savior?
And somehow, in the midst of all the loss, I was found. God did not lift me up to the highest; He descended to me into the lowest.
As Advent approaches this year, I’ve been thinking that maybe the real meaning of Christmas is not in excelsis Deo. Our hope is not that we find God in our joy, but that He finds us in our pain.
Gloria, for in extremis, Deo.
Sarah Thebarge is a PK and currently practices medicine and is a writer and editor for book projects. She lives in Portland, OR, and you can reach her at email@example.com.
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