breast cancer

suffering, man walking through dark forest

Chosen vs. Unchosen Suffering

What is chosen suffering?

My recent cancer journey coincided with reading a book called Chosen Suffering. It was a book that one of my church pastors quoted from and I was intrigued. It was been a timely read in the midst of what I was going through. The book is written as a leadership book by Tom Ryan who is a college wrestling coach. He talks about chosen suffering as in the suffering an athlete chooses in order to become elite. Unchosen suffering enters his life with the sudden, unexpected death of one of his young children.

What about unchosen suffering?

Reading the book helped me reframe what I was going through. The cancer diagnosis itself is unchosen suffering. I did not choose it or ask for it. But I have choices following that diagnosis. And that has given me a new mindset. My surgeon, oncologist, and radiologist recommend treatments based on their knowledge and I had the option of choosing to take those actions or pursuing other treatments. When I have side effects from treatments, I can dwell on the suffering that I’m currently feeling, or I can remember that I chose this option. I can spend my mental energy on getting through the challenges in the best way possible. Or I can be the best I can be with the circumstances that were outside my control. We can’t control other people or many of the things that happen to us, but we can control our responses to those things.

“Pain is the feeling. Suffering is the effect the pain inflicts. If one can endure pain, one can live without suffering. If one can withstand pain, one can withstand anything. If one can learn to control pain, one can learn to control oneself. ”
― James Frey, My Friend Leonard

― James Frey, My Friend Leonard

A silhouette of an archer, on the backdrop of a sky with exploding gun powder.

The second arrow

I have a choice in how I walk through unchosen suffering. Choosing to add more suffering on top of that is never going to be the best option. There is a Buddhist parable about this. Imagine walking through a forest and getting hit by an arrow. There is pain and probably fear as a result of getting struck by an arrow. The second arrow refers to your emotional reaction to getting hit by that first arrow.

When I finished my 12 weeks of chemotherapy I was looking forward to 30 days of recovery before having to start radiation. I was looking forward to rebuilding my stamina. I couldn’t wait for food to taste good again. Two weeks into this recovery period I got COVID. I was sick, exhausted, and lost my sense of taste and smell. Unchosen suffering. The first arrow.

And then I added on the second arrow. I got angry, disappointed, and frustrated. I wallowed in, “It’s not fair.” I whined and complained. Thankfully, I didn’t stay in that emotional funk for too long. But I didn’t have to add on all that extra uncessesary chosen suffering. I ultimately focused on the things that I was grateful for, despite my circumstances as in one of my favorite Bible verses:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned[e] and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Phillipians 4:8-9

worship despite cancer

Though You Slay Me: Faith and Cancer

I’ve recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s been a 3-month journey from the initial screening mammogram to diagnosis. But now I know. It doesn’t feel real yet. I can’t feel it. It’s deep so it was only detected on my screening mammogram. Women, get your mammograms!

I haven’t started treatment yet so there are no side effects. I feel the same. But so much has changed. I’m “fighting cancer” but the only “fighting” so far has been reading, learning, and going to doctor’s appointments.

Think On These Things

As a life coach one of my favorite practices is doing thought work. It’s even more important now. What I think about matters. What I dwell on makes a difference in how I go through this. Even though anxiety shows up I know that it robs me of today. One of my favorite sections of scripture talks about this:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9, ESV

This verse directly follows a verse that tells me to “do not be anxious about anything” but to give it to God with thankfulness and to let my request be known to Him. This is always my desire, but in the past I have struggled with taking those worries back that I have given to Him. And that’s why I appreciate the concrete instructions in verses 8 & 9. I can direct my thoughts and the promise is that the God of peace will be with me.

A Deeper Faith

One of the ways I direct my thinking in a more positive direction is to play worship music. I have playlists of songs that have specific meanings for me. It’s fascinating to me how every Bible verse and every worship song takes on new meaning when you are going through a tough time. I have always wanted to write blog posts to share some of my favorite songs. And with this post I am finally going to do it. I hope these songs will speak to you too.

This particular song by Shane and Shane has been a favorite of mine for several years. It is from the book of Job and if you’ve never read that book it’s about intense suffering and how God can be found in the midst of it. My prayer, of course, is to be healed. But my testimony is that even if He doesn’t heal me here on earth I still praise Him. I encourage you to listen to the song linked below as well as the excerpt of a teaching by pastor John Piper that is part of the video.

“My heart and flesh may fail
The earth will all give way
But with my eyes, with my eyes I’ll see the Lord
Lifted high on that day
Behold, the Lamb that was slain
And I’ll know every tear was worth it all

Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I needThough tonight I’m crying out

Let this cup pass from me now
You’re still all that I need
You’re enough for me”

Excerpt from Though You Slay Me by Shane & Shane