It occurred to me that cancer is quite stigmatizing! I was at once surprised and disappointed to find myself NOT wanting people to know that I am living with such a dreaded disease. I thought back to the moment my spouse, Patricia, told me the doctors had found a cancerous tumor on my bile duct. My initial response was "I am so sorry!" I mourned for the journey that had been thrust upon her, knowing that is a few hours her life had been forever changed. I felt sorrow also for her having to tell others that the woman she loves and has chosen to share her life with was walking around with some kind of thing growing and chasing her toward death. There I was, laying in a hospital bed, in pain and discomfort from an invasive procedure that had lasted several hours and my first reaction was guilt! What was THAT about!!!??? It made no sense to me, but was nevertheless real.
Since being diagnosed, I have frequently remembered hearing about cancer as a child. I recalled hearing my mother and her friends talking about others who had been diagnosed with cancer. As they talked their voices lowered to whispers and their faces seemed to melt into pools of sorrow. In my mind, during those days, cancer was absolutely the worse thing that could happen to someone. It was worse than diabetes or heart disease or even getting killed in an airplane crash. Nothing was bigger than cancer back then and everyone lived in fear of getting "IT". Oddly, nothing still seems bigger than cancer for many of us still today. When I consider my initial reaction to being told I was living with this thing, for some reason I immediately went back in time, back to that place where this illness represented brokenness. And, in that moment, in that place, I was ashamed of my brokenness. For me, this is unacceptable. For me, now is the time for us to disarm disease by drowning cancer and other stigmatizing illnesses in truth! The truth about cancer is that is is simply one of many illnesses some people encounter. It is not the result of anything someone did or did not do. There are, of course, behaviors that increase the possibilities of some individuals getting cancer, like smoking or being exposed to any number of cancer-causing substances, but there are also individuals with this disease who never engaged in those behaviors or were never exposed to those substances. Sometimes stuff just happens and guilt and shame must never be considered characteristics of any illness.
We have an opportunity to disarm disease by deciding to celebrate the lives of persons with stigmatizing illnesses such as cancer and HIV/AIDS. The challenge before us is whether we have the courage to accept this opportunity. Perhaps meeting this challenge requires that we encourage persons living with such diseases to "run and tell that", to openly share the truth of their health and enlist the support of others. Meeting this challenge also requires that those of us living with diseases take the time to learn everything we can about our illnesses and work to educate others about the possibilities for life rather than death.
Tomorrow I will present my body to be cut open so that a tumor that has invaded it can be removed. I look forward to a positive recovery process that will blossom into an aggressive and widespread effort to disarm disease. My prayer is that others will join me and work to change shame into pride for the may others who, like me, felt - if only for a moment - that they deserved misfortune of any kind. The greatest truth for me today is that all of us deserve to be healthy and to live filled with peace, pride, and passion for the unfolding of our tomorrows with all the mystery they hold!
Renee McCoy is a writer, anthropologist, preacher, and artist living in Seattle, Washington. Her life has been focused on bringing the good news of God's unconditional love to others and working to support and encourage others to celebrate the wonder of being created in God's image. At the core of her soul is the unwavering belief that we are all remarkable individuals who come together to support one another as we journey to wholeness and the fulfillment of our unique purposes in this life.