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Cancer and Spirituality

Finding a New Normal after Cancer

by Rev. George Handzo, MDiv, and Rabbi Andrew Sklarz

Inspiration image

One of the facts of surviving a life threatening illness is that everything is different. Your body is changed, and your spiritual and religious outlook is forever changed. You do not “return to normal,” as in go back to the way things were. However, this “new normal” does not have to mean that everything is worse than before. “New” can sometimes be better. One of the secrets is finding ways to use the experience of illness to grow and be a better person than before.

Below is one person’s account of how this happened in his own life. This account is not meant to be a blueprint for everyone – only an example of what can be. This story is colored by Rabbi Andrew Sklarz’s religion, profession, and person. Let your story be colored by who you are.

Anyone who has ever been diagnosed with a life threatening illness will attest that “normal” takes on an entirely new meaning as we travel the road of life with thoughts and emotions we had never known before. With my diagnosis of leukemia, a new sense of normal ensued and a new me began to emerge.

On the surface, I was not terribly different. I continued to put forth the personality, energy, and enthusiasm, but nothing was ever the same. While fears prevailed, everything became so much more precious – not only just my loved ones; the grass seemed greener and the sky bluer. A driving need to pursue my passions like never before seemed to take hold of me. I began cycling, even entering marathons.

Anyone who has ever been diagnosed with a life threatening illness will attest that “normal” takes on an entirely new meaning.

Author of Article photo

Rev. George Handzo

When I was 15 years old, a fluke accident rendered my left hand partially paralyzed. I believed I would never play piano again, which until then had been one of my greatest passions. As a result of my “new normal” nearly 30 years later, I not only returned to playing the piano, but through vigorous exercise, I also developed the dexterity to play guitar. I believe that through the power of God as expressed by medicine and prayer I have been blessed with life.

So I decided to bless others by becoming a peer counselor, comforting the newly diagnosed and their families, as well as a writer and speaker on behalf of various cancer organizations.

Author of Article photo

Rabbi Andrew Sklarz

While my personal belief in God has deepened and developed through my journey with cancer, I would certainly not dare say that everything that occurs under the sun is part of the “Divine Plan.” Accidents and human frailty do prevail in the world. Yet I believe that I was brought through this journey over the last eight years for a very definite reason and purpose. Even when I look at darkness in my life, I am convinced there is meaning to be found. – Rabbi Sklarz

Our journeys are our own. They are between us and God. It is up to us to unravel why we have been brought to certain junctures.

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Rabbi Andrew Sklarz is the spiritual leader of Greenwich Reform Synagogue in Greenwich, CT. The Reverend George Handzo is vice president of the Pastoral Care Leadership and Practice at HealthCare Chaplaincy in New York, NY.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2009.