Breast Cancer Resource Center Savannah, GA USA

Fear and Faith

I have promised to be completely authentic about this cancer journey: both the physical hoops and the emotional hurtles combined.  For I know that only when we speak these truths out loud can compassion and connection allow us to truly heal and to change the world for the better (even if only a little). 

Dear sweet friend, traveling this unforgiving callous path, I aim to help you.  I know that I don’t have the power to snap my fingers and in one fell shwoop fix everything; but boy do I wish that I could.  THAT, however, is a job that hasn’t been assigned to me; and although there’s nothing I’d like more than to wipe away your pain (and in some cases I sure as heck have tried), I recognize too that it’s out of my control completely just as much as it is yours.  I won’t lie.  That does irritate me.  It ticks me off because I do want to fix things, to help when someone is hurting, and to lift your burden so that you don’t have to bear it. 

My heart has always been in the right place, but my recognition of reality has been a little unrealistic at times.  There are things in life that I simply cannot control; and learning to let go of these things has been quite the life lesson for me.  Still, there is power in my pain.  I can focus on the things that I can control; and this is a gift that I shall not waste.  I can choose to let truth and love light the way.  How?  I can choose to listen, to take off my own horse blinders and to see the world from a newer perspective.  I can be compassionate and empathetic and recognize that my own view of the world can be enhanced when I listen to another.  Still, I can choose my own voice and authenticity to share as well.  For it too has value and perspective of its own.  I have ears that I can choose to listen with; and I have a voice that I can choose to use as well.  And with my heart at the helm, my ears and my voice are not at odds.  Rather, with the removal of our own horse blinders, we can all grow in our courage.  Winston Churchill even said, “courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Still, I must also recognize that as much as I strive for perfection (part of my own brokenness), I will never obtain it.  I am not God; I am human…imperfections and all.  Lysa Terkeurst writes in It’s not supposed to be this way: finding unexpected strength when disappointments leave you shattered, “we are imperfect because we are unfinished (p.78).”  She goes on to write, “God wants you, His creation, to connect with others and bring them light and life with the brush strokes of compassion (p. 83).” 

Compassion breeds connection; and connection creates hope and love.  Where there is love, there is God.  Both compassion for others and for ourselves is equally important.  Every single one of us is broken; we’re broken because we are human.  We are not perfect; and as my friend puts it, “we all speak from our own scars, whatever they may be.”  Recognize that.  Recognize that in yourself and in others. 

My mission is to use the voice that I’ve been given, the vulnerabilities ignited from my own pain, and the collection of inner truths shared by fellow survivors to help kindle this compassion.  This calling placed upon my heart is to help people understand and to recognize that they are not alone with their emotional wounds that turn up in the wake of a cancer diagnosis.  True healing requires attention to both those physical and emotional marks; and when you experience that overwhelming emotional current, no matter the form it takes, it does not translate to weakness or unworthiness of love.  It makes you real; it makes you authentic.  It makes you human.

It has taken me a long time to recognize that those negative emotions that we feel at times (sadness, grief, fear, anxiety)…they may be part of us, but they don’t define us.  I have always been the happy, optimistic one, yet I too fell.  I used to think that to be positive meant that I was forbidden to feel sadness…ever.  Happy people couldn’t have clouds of sorrow dripping down their backs now could they?  How wrong was I!  Yet, imagine the shame and guilt that piled on top of my heart when sadness found me all the same. 

It bugs me a little when someone tells me, ‘you just have to be positive.’  It’s not that they’re wrong as much as it is that they don’t know me.  I AM positive!  I AM happy!  Those tears and heartache that I share do not rob me of my optimism.  That’s my vulnerability shining through; that’s my humanity dangling on my shirt-sleeve for the world to see.  If I cry in your presence, that doesn’t make me weak.  I am not defined by my tears.  That is my entire point.  That is the secret guarded by many, but applicable to us all.  Our emotions make us human; and debunking the shame and guilt for experiencing the complete range of those emotions is part of being able to heal.  Give yourself permission to be human…to feel…to not have to display those ‘perfect’ emotions.  Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong, “the irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness – even our wholeheartedness – actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls.”

I’ve heard this similar tale of overwhelming fear, sadness, or grief echoed countless times from others who’ve journeyed through a similar trauma.  Yet, here’s where hope shines.  I may experience sadness.  I may experience fear.  However, when I fall (and I inevitably will), I will rise again.  That is hope.  That is love.  That is compassion towards myself; and that is recognizing that strength and courage don’t mean that I will never bleed…that I will never feel.  I am human; I will do both.  It is okay to not always be okay.  It doesn’t make you weak.  It doesn’t make you unworthy.

Still, the process of unmasking this emotional truth and creating compassion and connection for those experiencing a similar one requires me to put my own vulnerability on the line.  It forces me to wear my cancer-bruised heart out there on my sleeve, exposed and dangling for anyone else to beat down.  That is terrifying.   This is especially true considering that my own brokenness cradles perfectionism and people-pleasing.  Those are imperfect threads of my own that run deep into my being.  (I am working on that).  And ya’ll, I’d be lying if I claimed that my exposed vulnerability never got beat down.  Still, courage is moving forward with what you know needs to be done despite the fear riding shotgun.  I can have courage and still be afraid.  I can have faith and hope and love despite the unpleasant thud from my stumbles and falls.  Putting my vulnerability on the line is not an easy thing; but, that compassion and connection would be unattainable without it.  So, I continue to muster up some courage and place my cancer-bruised heart out there on my shirt-sleeve anyhow.  It is daunting and my heart races.

I pushed forward anyhow, and in doing so, God gifted me a recent sting in this department.  I’m not being sarcastic here; I do mean it was a gift.  You see, it helped me take down those blinders of my own and grow in my own compassion while regaining a newer motivation to use my voice as well.  Hello ears.  Hello voice.  Let my heart lead the way.

I recently gave a presentation on these ‘Survivor Truths’ to a group of cancer peers.  I’d given it before, and I’d been previously greeted with countless confirmations. To my human brokenness within… my very own people-pleasing problem…it made me feel good.  Connection had been created; survivors were given permission to be human, to not be defined by those overwhelming emotions, to learn how to cope with them, and to push forward and live their best lives possible despite their pain.  More importantly, they were able to recognize that they weren’t the only ones.  Let shame and guilt slide off the top of those compressed and buried emotions.  It was a great moment and renewed me with purpose and conviction. 

However, when I gave my presentation later, to another group, I had my low-lying vulnerability ripped off my shirt-sleeve, and it stung.  As I poured my heart out, I noticed one person falling asleep.  Was I really that boring? Still, three sets of eyes, the windows to your soul, let me in.  Those individuals may not have said anything, but their eyes did.  Their eyes whispered that soft, vulnerable truth within: me too, me too. 

However, two other pairs of eyes within the room did not elicit the same response.  Shields were up; and I was an outsider.  Somehow a word or phrase that I spoke triggered this wall of defense, and in the process of their self-preservation against my thought, my own vulnerability got squished.  It was as if the very word ‘fear’ that I spoke of was cast as the enemy and perceived as an immediate threat.  Therefore, by extension, I became their threat.  I would go down for it, vulnerability and all.  I’ll first explain this sting and then follow it up with what I heard and how it was a gift.

In a presentation like this, where vulnerability is a must, I drew on the emotion that I had come to know quite well: fear.  Yes!  I was afraid of cancer.  In some ways, I still am.  I didn’t go into all of these details at the time that I presented, but you see, I have developed some PTSD like symptoms since finishing treatment.  I re-see and re-feel everything about that damn operating room.  It’s incredibly painful and scary (even though my rational brain knows that it can’t hurt me now).  I still panic.  As a result, I really don’t like going to the doctor.  I often cannot get out of the car.  The sights and sounds and memories from that place trigger me and send me sailing into a very detailed memory that no one should have to carry.  It sucks!  It is hard! THERE IS FEAR!  But, I make myself go in there anyway.  I go because my fear, however intense and real it may be, does not own me; and I have courage to face that fear.  (Note…I am not saying that it is easy.)

My drawing on the emotion fear does not mean that I expect everyone to experience it to the same degree.  Perhaps it’s sadness or grief or shame or anger that can be overwhelming following a diagnosis.  Or, maybe it is fear.  Maybe it just manifests differently.  Regardless, as human beings, we are hardwired to experience emotions…ALL emotions.  My friend and psychologist even wrote, “Fear is very real – it elevates our cortisol so we can engage in survival tactics.”

Be it as it may, one of my cancer peers shared that she did not relate with what I was saying at all.  Truthfully, I was dumbfounded.  This was the first I had ever heard of this.  A cancer warrior void of emotion? Void of fear?  This woman had a presence of strength and conviction that drew you in.  She was unwavering in her faith, calm and sturdy; and I admired and respected her greatly for that.  Could she really be without scars?  How does one do that?

My association with the word fear unintentionally jabbed a little too closely to a wound that she herself was fiercely guarding.  She told me that she didn’t have room for fear because she was deeply religious and “where there was fear there was no God.”  She told me that fear and faith could not coexist; and then she asked me pointedly, “do you even believe in God?” Sting.  My vulnerability went crashing to the floor, and shame for admitting my truths about fear began to rise.

I listened, held myself together, and finished my points in the presentation.  Were there tears?  Sure.  When I spoke of control, I drew on another one of my truths.  I don’t have control over what genes my children have inherited from me.  But, I can control in part the kind of world that I’d like for them to inherit.  That world includes compassion.  And I will continue to muster up courage to create that compassion.  Remember, where there is compassion, there is love.  Do I still have fear that my girls may have a gene that writes its own code for pain…pain that I can’t prevent?  Absolutely!  I’m their mother.  Does it make me sad and will I shed tears?  Likely.  Okay, certainly.  I love them. 

Yes.  I do believe in love.  I do believe in God.  I may not be able to quote scripture, and I may get awkward and uncomfortable when those around me can quote it while sleeping.  (That’s my own brokenness with perfectionism raising its head here).  I may have to turn to Google or call on my scripture quoting friends to pull verses out of their hearts for me….I may not go to church nearly as often as I should….but I do have faith.  My own diagnosis has in many ways drawn me closer to God, and I feel His presence about me, even though I am not perfect.  I have faith; and I have fear.  I am not perfect.  I am broken.  I am human, and that is okay. 

My inner critic is consistently loud and works on overdrive, and my perfectionism and people-pleasing habits are really hard to squash.  So, on the drive home, after my vulnerability got torn down and thudded to the ground with a spotlight on my own imperfections: my tears had been real, my fear still hung around somewhere inside, and I had perceived fingers pointed at me, declaring my faith less than real if I was caught fraternizing with fear.

Fear and faith can’t coexist?  Joyce, you admitted that you have fear, ergo you must not have faith.  More tears.  More shame.  More reason for people to hush their true emotions and deny their existence at all.  That can’t be right.  Can it? 

Since, I haven’t studied theology and I know that I’m not even close to being a qualified professional at interpreting scripture, I did the best that I could.  I first turned to google to search for scripture about fear.  What did it say?  Here’s a few of what I found:

John 4:18 “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Corinthians 16:13 “Be on your guard; stand firm in faith; be courageous; be strong.”

Psalm 18:2 “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.”

Isaiah 41:10 “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you in my righteous right hand.”

I hear faith.  I hear love.  I hear a Father calming His children.  I hear that I am not perfect, but He is still my rock.  What am I missing? Where does it say that my fear and my humanity is my biggest fault?  I’m not debating scripture.  I’m really not.  I know that I’m not qualified for that.  I just truly didn’t know.  All I knew was that I was hurting.  I had faith and yet I had fear.  How did they measure up in a language that I was not as well versed as others? 

So, I picked up the phone and called my scripture quoting cancer-fighting friend who’d wrestled with her own humanity countless times before.  I knew she was a safe person to call; she would give me her honest perspective without offense or judgement.  It’s funny how God brings people and situations into your life at just the right moment in time. 

She told me that it was not a coincidence that I asked this exact question today.  She had wrestled with that very sentiment when someone had told her, “faith and fear cannot coexist.”  She went on to divulge that hurt and shame rose through the wrestling too.  However, a friend reminded her that of course they can coexist.  “You’re human, of course fear and faith can coexist.  That’s the nature of being human.  We are not God. We are not perfect.”

Furthermore, fear is a requirement for keeping us safe.  The ‘fight or flight’ response that accompanies fear shaking the reins in our amygdala of our brains…well, ya’ll…it has served us well over the years.  Fear protects us.  It gives us what we need in times of great danger.  Do we fight the wild animal or do we run and hide?  (We don’t go up to it and say, hey what’s up). Do I shield my face when a ball comes hurling at it, or do I try to catch it? (We don’t stand there and wait for it to hit).  Do I stand my ground and defend my home if a burglar enters, or do I hide under the bed and dial 911? (We don’t do nothing).

Sure.  It’s understandable then, that when my brain gets the message that ‘I’ve been here before.  There’s danger inside this building.  Last time you were told you had cancer when you were here.  That is dangerous. There are knives in there, sharp ones that were used to cut off parts of your body.  Don’t you see it, Joyce.  Danger.’  And all sorts of alarm bells begin to go off in my brain.  That fear (although misguided because I am at a different place in time)…that fear is there trying to protect me.  It shouldn’t be shunned or shamed for that noble job.  Perhaps it needs to be calmed and reassured but not carved off of being entirely.  It is that same fear…fear of the cancer itself…that motivates me to go to my check-ups.  It takes its roll in protecting me seriously.

How then could it be at odds with faith?

My friend shared with me an excerpt from Shauna Niequist’s book, Present Over Perfect.  The author’s chapter on ‘Vinegar and Oil’ explains how she was taught to pray.  Niequist writes:

Many of us learned along the way to ignore the vinegar – the hot tears banging on our eyelids, the hurt feelings, the fear.  Ignore them.  Stuff them.  Make yourself numb.  And then pray dutiful, happy prayers.  But this is what I’m learning about prayer: you don’t get the oil until you pour out the vinegar (p.75).

On page 76, Niequist goes on to write:

He wants me to bring the vinegar so that I can taste the oil…He doesn’t ask me to show up and catalog my strengths.  He doesn’t ask me to show up and abuse myself for my failings.  He asks me to bring my whole-fragile-strong-weak-good-bad self, and that starts with vinegar, and it makes a way for oil.

When I was told, “where there is fear, there is no God,” I felt like my own worthiness had been called into question.  Shame for feeling fear and then again for admitting it rose up high in my heart, and vulnerability went rolling off my sleeve and thudded onto the ground.  Ouch. 

But, here’s a beautiful piece of scripture that my friend shared with me.  I find it comforting it the physical trials of a cancer storm, in the emotional wake and uncertainty that follows, and then again in my own moment of braving to be vulnerable in efforts to create that compassion and connection.  Micah 7:8 says, “Though I have fallen, I will arise; though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light.”

So, in darkness I sat.  I wasn’t alone.  Through my unpleasant thud, I was connected with another; and compassion did bloom.  Vulnerability isn’t easy.  Emotions are real; and they do rise in intensity following any trauma in life.

But, I am blessed for my falls.  I am blessed for my whole entire heart, even the parts that are less than ‘ideal.’  Still, I recognize that the beautiful, steady and composed woman who brought this to my attention…she is not wrong.  She is merely managing and fiercely protecting her own wounds in the best way that she knows how.  She has lived through her own stormy waters, had to deal with things that no woman should, and she has her own story to tell.  Perhaps that was her mantra.  Perhaps those were the words that sewed together her own life preserver, and who am I to puncture that?  It was certainly never my intention.

Exactly my point.  Cancer? No matter the diagnosis, if it has happened to your body, to your mind, to your soul, then you are entitled to feel however you feel, whenever you feel it.  Breathe.  Know that you are enough…just as you are…human-brokenness and all.  We all are!