Spirituality & Survivorship
Living with Cancer through the Seasons
by Rev. Jill Bowden, BCC, MDiv, MPA, and Rev. Melissa Stewart, LCSW-R
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (KJV)
The impact of a cancer diagnosis is dramatic and life altering. It can affect your sense of self, leaving its mark on your body, mind, and spirit. Even when treatment is successful, the constant worry about your cancer returning may stay with you. Then there are those for whom cancer becomes a chronic illness, who remain in some form of treatment indefinitely and must learn how to adapt to this new way of life. Navigating this terrain of life after cancer – or life with cancer – is challenging to say the least. It can leave you feeling isolated in a world in which so many others do not understand its impact. Fortunately, the natural world and the cycle of the seasons offer a spiritual roadmap of sorts.
What is spirituality?
Spirituality can be described as an expression of one’s experience of connectedness and, paradoxically, transcendence, as well as an individual’s values, sense of meaning, and foundational beliefs. These spiritual attributes span every religious and cultural tradition.
Spring, with its spurt of growth and new life, is a reminder to be aware of all that is changing. The warm, sunny summer season is a time of gratitude. The seasonal turn toward colder temperatures, harvest time, and the shortening of daylight hours in autumn signals transformation. Finally, the frigid months of winter, and our inclination to stay inside and hibernate, supplies an opportunity for deep inner connection.
A heightened awareness in spring invites us into a state of observation. A practice of mindfulness – or close, nonjudgmental attention to one’s inner experiences (physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts) and outer experiences (sights and sounds) – enhances this process. Often, when faced with an unwanted event or experience, such as a cancer diagnosis or the long-term effects of treatment, we may find ourselves in a state of resistance. Acknowledging this resistance is the first step to working with it, moving through it, and eventually letting it go.
Spring, with its spurt of growth and new life, is a reminder to be aware of all that is changing.
The summer months offer an opportunity for reflections on gratitude. It is not uncommon for someone who has cancer or has completed treatment for cancer to be told that they should be grateful that it wasn’t worse. Although this kind of thinking can help to shift our perspective, forced gratitude has the potential to make people feel worse. Yes, there are things to be gained from challenging experiences; for example, a reexamination of your life or an important shift in priorities. However, even when a cancer diagnosis brings about positive life changes and emotional or spiritual growth, most people will still say they wish cancer had never happened. It takes time and intention to get to a place of thankfulness.
Autumn brings about total transformation. More than a simple physical transition from one material state to another (like water to ice), the natural world is re-formed. Similarly, a person who has lived through cancer may experience a sea change: a rebirth into a new way of being. Transformation is the culmination of seed into seedling into mature fruit and ripened grain. A rich harvest brings full circle the seasons of growth and change – and the result contains that seed, or essence, which will continue the cycle of rebirth and renewal. Autumn reminds us to reflect upon how we ourselves have grown and matured, perhaps in a manner we did not expect. We may not recognize this new self, but we may learn to appreciate who we have become and what we now have to offer to the world around us.
Autumn reminds us to reflect upon how we ourselves have grown and matured, perhaps in a manner we did not expect.
Winter gives us an opportunity for fallow time – a time of waiting and rest. Our intuitive pull to sinking into the dark and cold can lead to disconnection, to the feeling of being separate and alone. Without distractions from the outside world, we can use this as an opportunity for deeper interior reflection and connection with ourselves.
The natural world offers inspiration and profound lessons about the cycles of life, death, transformation, and renewal. Commonly, when people witness, for example, a spectacular sunset or stunning landscape, the beauty of a flower, or the shock of thunder and lightning, they – we – are reminded of the awesome power of Nature. For a moment, we call to mind our own place in the grand scheme of things and may even feel in alignment with all of creation. We transcend our sense of individuality as we experience interconnectedness with the web of life. The natural movement of life through each season offers us the gift of self-reflection and encourages a new way of being spiritual.
The Reverend Jill Bowden (left) is director of Chaplaincy Services, which provides spiritual and religious support for persons of any faith tradition or value system, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY.
Rev. Melissa Stewart, also of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, has been an oncology social worker for 25 years. In addition, she is ordained as an interfaith/interspiritual minister by the One Spirit Learning Alliance, where she serves as a dean of the Interfaith Seminary.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2020.