Catholics and Cancer: The Dying of the Light

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Cancer is indiscriminate — hitting the young and old, fit and feeble, male and female. Almost any part of the body is vulnerable; there are many risk factors and things that may cause it, but sometimes it just happens.

In our age, filled with deep faith in science, medicine and our own cleverness, it remains the demon that is always one step ahead of the exorcist.

We fight it and fight it hard, but sometimes the fight is futile.

What’s a Catholic to do?

A Dec. 18 article in the National Catholic Register profiles Houston Texans offensive tackle David Quessenberry, who, as a 6-foot-five-inch, 23-year-old, non-smoking, mostly teetotaling professional athlete, began suffering from fatigue and a nagging cough.

The Californian and Catholic was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the blood. Since 2014, he’s been battling it with chemotherapy that cost him his hair and racked his once-powerful body. Currently in remission and on the team’s injured-reserve list, he’s working out and aiming to return for the 2016 season.

The Register asked him about whether cancer caused him to grow spiritually:

I’ve grown a little bit, but I can’t give cancer any credit. There’s nothing good about cancer. However, anyone diagnosed with it, or with any other disease, still chooses his own mindset. That’s the one thing we do control — how we see what is happening to us. Our choice here determines how we respond to the situation.

But the compassion that came to him and his family, the way in which he could feel the effect of prayers, and his experiences with other patients, did bring him a new appreciation of the rosary (not just the prayers, but the object itself) and the Faith:

I didn’t always see things that way, though. Growing up, I didn’t get why we had to sit, stand and kneel at specific times during the Mass. The “Catholic calisthenics” didn’t make sense to me; it wasn’t clear why we had to be so structured in what we did.

That changed once I came to see that Jesus was the one who started the Mass. He was there with his apostles and said to do this in remembrance of him. The Mass is not something we make up; it’s something we accept as a sacramental gift and something we participate in, not only as a religious duty, but as a major means of drawing us into the life of the Trinity.

The Mass is unique to any religion, because it’s the only place you can receive not only the gifts our Savior gave us, but our Savior himself, in the Eucharist. Jesus gave his apostles the power to change the bread and wine into his Body and Blood, so that makes the Eucharist unequaled by any other gift we could receive.

As a young man with a form of cancer for which there are effective — if harrowing — treatments, of course, Quessenberry has sought all possible ways to overcome the disease and regain his health.

But what if there is little or no hope?

At the medical blog KevinMD.com, in a piece called “What a nurse learned from a patient who wasn’t afraid to die,” a registered nurse recalled the case of a friend named Sally who lost a husband to cancer.

Although Sally stayed by her husband until the last, she found dealing with even the simplest medical treatments extremely difficult. Then, after a problem with her leg ultimately led to a diagnosis of stage-four pancreatic cancer — a stage of the disease for which there are treatments, but no cure — Sally’s reaction startled the nurse.

“When will you start chemo?” I asked Sally.

“Oh, I’m not going to do that,” she said matter-of-factly. “There’s no cure, you know.”

I had trouble processing this decision. How could she make it so quickly? The treatment would be difficult, but it could extend her life, at least, a few months. She had a wonderful family and many friends who were ready and willing to take care of her for as long as it took. She could, at least, start the treatment and see how the tumor responded before making a final decision. What about the possibility, no matter how remote, that a cure or promising clinical trial might be found during those months?

Sally’s response to such arguments made it clear that they were not open to consideration:

“I’m not afraid to die.”

The nurse then relates how Sally entered hospice care in her own home, in a “sun-filled bedroom.” She took her pain medications, spent time with family, and two months later, “quietly passed away.”

Along the way, Sally moved past her fear of medical treatments, including ones she had to do for herself.

Wrote the nurse:

But to myself I always thought, If I had received Sally’s diagnosis, I would have fought it with every medical tool available — chemo, radiation, clinical trials of any kind. I wouldn’t have spent my last months in a sunny room on a soft bed; I would have been hooked up to tubes, puking my guts out. I wouldn’t have been afraid of anything. Bring it on. Anything, that is, except death.

After her death, I realized that I was the one blinded by fear. Sally could clearly see the outcome she wanted: as much time as possible to feel well and enjoy her family; a calm and dignified death. And, because of her bravery, those are the things she got.

It’s a decision every cancer patient (or family member, if the patient is incapacitated) must make — when does treatment stop and preparation for death begin? What must be endured; what should be endured?

And, instead of letting the disease take its course, should the end be hastened to reduce suffering? That’s increasingly the view of secular society.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear:

Euthanasia

2276 Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

2277 Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.

Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

2278 Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

2279 Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable. Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.

It seems, according to Church teaching, both Quessenberry and Sally (whose faith, if any, is not mentioned in the KevinMD piece) did the right thing — one in fighting for life, and one in resigning to death.

The quote in the title is from Dylan Thomas’ famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night,” in which the writer admonishes the reader to resist death, to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

There are varying interpretations of the verse, but one I found is not assuming Dylan is speaking of death as something to be fought just for the sake of doing it, but having more to do with the quality of the life that preceded it:

Thomas affirms the brief and precious nature of being alive and defines how life should be lived—with passion, with joy, and with an elevating purpose not to be betrayed through inaction. Death is a “good night,” he believes, but dying should be resisted if a life, even a long life, has not been truly lived.

Image: Pancreatic cancer, from Wikimedia Commons

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The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

A native of the Adirondacks and Saratoga Springs in northern New York State, journalist and fiction writer Kate O'Hare now lives in Los Angeles, where she's on a neverending quest to find a parish in the L.A. Archdiocese with orthodox preaching, excellent traditional music and parking.

1 Comment

  1. I loved this! My mom died if stomach cancer 10 yrs ago and she was 56. She lasted less then two years after diagnosis. The radiation and chemotherapy side effects destroyed the woman that I loved. There was no quality the last year of her life. It left her a shell of a person and severely depressed. It’s hard when those were my last memories of her. I wish she didn’t do those treatments.

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