In the Pink By Maureen Bennett, Helen Long and Pat Mollan Archbishop Alan Harper, 7th December 2012.
When Pat Mollan asked me to write a Foreword for her book the sections she showed me were, at most, one half of what you hold in your hands today. When she asked me to launch the book she explained that the project had grown somewhat and I now realize that it has grown not merely in size but also in stature.
This is, first and foremost, a book by women and for women. So, initially, I wrestled with the almost absurd notion of a mere male launching a book about breast cancer entitled, “In the Pink”. Wrestled, that is, until I tumbled to the fact that Breast Cancer is not just a women’s issue, it is an issue for everyone, and that much between these covers is stuff that men also need to reflect upon.
There is an important premise to the book that Maureen, Helen and Pat – I shall refer to them as the Three Graces – have compiled. It is this: there is more to sickness than merely physical and symptomatic, manifestations. Sickness affects not only the way we see, experience and make sense of the world and our relationships, it is a threat to the sense of our place in the world, our inner security, our key relationships, and our capacity to hold fast or adapt to the concepts and apprehensions we may have of the benevolence of the divine.
Just as there is more to life and sickness than the physical and the symptomatic, so there is more to dealing with the things that threaten our life or well being than medical intervention. The book that Maureen, Helen and Pat have written offers and explores resources for that response through practical reflection on real and personal experience.
TS Elliot wrote:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel That questions the distempered part; Beneath the bleeding hands we feel The sharp compassion of the healer’s art Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
[East Coker, The Four Quartets]
The reflections in this book are those of wounded surgeons and attentive learners in the school of adversity. Neither the distempered parts not the bleeding hands are concealed in the pages of this book. If they were the sharp compassion of the writers, and of the engaged and loving God of whom they write, would not be so immediate and so accessible.
But here I should like to make a suggestion – either to the “Three Graces” themselves, or to others who might draw inspiration from what and how they have written: is it possible that a different but similar book might be drawn together to assist those who accompany sufferers on their painful journey? I think of the husbands, children, parents and other family members who suffer with the sufferers from diseases such as breast cancer.
I recall the moment on Golgotha when Jesus turned to the handful of people left beside him, including his mother and his closest friend, and healed them with words of restoration, giving them a new perspective from which to view the life they must live and the death he must die. Others there are, around the one who is physically sick, afraid and in pain, who are also in need of similar mental and spiritual re-configuration. What to do and what not to do; what to say and what not to say; how to pray and maintain a semblance of spiritual equilibrium. There is an umbra and penumbra of frailty surrounding the subject at the heart of their common concern.
I don’t mean to suggest that it is harder to watch than to suffer. It is hard but it is different. Certainly, however, the sense of powerlessness – even vicarious powerlessness – and personal inadequacy is equally threatening. Am I angry for her? Am I angry with her? Am I angry with God? How do you get back at God, or not lose patience with him?
I was reminded of this last Monday evening when I watched a Newsnight interview with Lord Saatchi. He has a bill before the House of Lords that arises directly out of his own experience of losing a wife to cancer. Not breast cancer, in fact a much more intractable form of cancer. As I listened to him describing the good news, the bad news and the worse news associated with the course of his wife’s terminal condition, his entry into her suffering and the power of his response, I realized that actually cancer, suffering, confronting physical frailty and the turmoil of fear and pain are ultimately not single gender issues, they are human issues that have to be seen in the context of a shared past, a shared present and a shared future.
I want to thank the Three Graces for their book so replete with the grace to deal with the deep things of the human person. I know that many people will be blessed through this work, which is a work of courage, compassion, faith and personal sacrifice. I thank them and their publishers for making that courage, compassion, faith and sacrifice explicit and available for the times when people need them most.