Father, should I take chemotherapy?

May 12, 2016

By Father Joseph Breighner

It's been some time now since a woman of deep faith approached me about her colon cancer. She had just completed surgery to remove the diseased portion of her colon, and her surgeon was referring her to an oncologist. Her specific question to me was about chemotherapy. Should she take the chemo?

That's never an easy question to answer. My own mother, who died in 1983, had chosen chemotherapy. The first treatment extended her life about a year. The second dose pretty much ended her life.

The woman who had approached me was in her early 60s. Her father had been diagnosed with colon cancer, had refused chemotherapy, and was still alive 30 years later. Not taking chemo was the right decision for him.

I first asked what statistics her surgeon had given her. Basically she said that there was about a 50 percent chance the chemo would help, and a 50 percent chance it would not. So there was no clear medical advantage to chemo.

Part of this woman's pain, however, was that many friends, family and respected members of her community were urging her to take chemo, to do everything she could to beat the cancer.

 “What do you want to do?” I asked her. “What is your inner voice telling you? What do you think God wants you to do?”

“I don't think chemo is the right choice,” she told me.

“I think you've made your decision,” I replied.

But suppose a year from now the cancer returns, the woman wondered. Won't she be filled with guilt that she didn't try chemotherapy?

“This time next year you can remind yourself that you made your decision based on what you knew this year,” I told her. “You don't feel right within yourself about taking it. There are no clear odds medically. And, as a woman of faith, you didn't have any sense that God was urging you to take chemotherapy.”

Just be honest with all those people telling her to take chemotherapy, I said.

“Tell them, ‘I've made my decision. I'm not going to take chemotherapy. Now I need your support. I need your love. I need your prayers. I need your hugs. I need your care. I don't need your judgment. I need you to give me all of the support you can while I go through this.’”

My point was that in rejecting chemotherapy she was not “doing nothing.” She was doing something else. She was committing herself to as healthy a lifestyle as possible, to prayer and to nurturing happiness and joy within herself.

Because she was in a prayer group, she already had a natural support group. Every study indicates that cancer patients in support groups live longer than those who don't have such groups.

Second, consistent studies on prayer indicate that prayer helps. I reminded her of a line from a longer payer that I shared once before in a column: “Lord, let me feel the warmth of your healing love moving through my mind, my body and my spirit.”

Repeat it over and over. I encouraged her to visualize the healing light of God's love dissolving the cancer calls.

Finally, I encouraged her to do whatever nurtured joy within her heart. Laugh a lot. Smile a lot. Be with people who are loving, caring and happy. Help other people. Helping others always makes us feel better. Studies show that cancer patients in support groups who also volunteer to help others live longer than those who just have support groups.

At any time, facing any challenge in life, nurturing joy in our hearts is our best defense against diseases of the mind, body or spirit. Cultivating joy not only helps us to live longer. It helps us to live better.

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